German Regulator Bans Smartwatches For Children

VTech Kidizoom DX smartwatch for children. Select for larger version Parents: considering a smartwatch for your children or grandchildren? Consider the privacy implications first. Bleeping Computer reported on Friday:

"Germany's Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur), the country's telecommunications agency, has banned the sale of children's smartwatches after it classified such devices as "prohibited listening devices." The ban was announced earlier today... parents are using their children's smartwatches to listen to teachers in the classroom. Recording or listening to private conversations is against the law in Germany without the permission of all recorded persons."

Some smartwatches are designed for children as young as four years of age. Several brands are available at online retailers, such as Amazon and Best Buy.

Why the ban? Gizmodo explained:

"Saying the technology more closely resembles a “spying device” than a toy... Last month, the European Consumer Organization (BEUC) warned that smartwatches marketed to kids were a serious threat to children’s privacy. A report published by the Norwegian Consumer Council in mid-October revealed serious flaws in several of the devices that could easily allow hackers to seize control. "

Clearly, this is another opportunity for parents to carefully research and consider smart device purchases for their family, to teach their children about privacy, and to not record persons without their permission.


Do Social Media Pose Threats To Democracies?

November 4th cover of The Economist magazine The November 4th issue of The Economist magazine discussed whether social networking sites threaten democracy in the United States and elsewhere. Social media were supposed to better connect us with accurate and reliable information. What we know so far (links added):

"... Facebook acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election, between January 2015 and August this year, 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. Google’s YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 accounts. Far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been spreading poison. Russia’s trouble-making is only the start. From South Africa to Spain, politics is getting uglier... by spreading untruth and outrage, corroding voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions..."

You can browse some of the ads Russia bought on Facebook during 2016. (Hopefully, you weren't tricked by any of them.) We also know from this United Press International (UPI) report about social media companies' testimony before Congress:

"Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) said Facebook still has many pages that appear to have been created by the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin group that bought advertising during the campaign. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) said some Russian-backed advertisers even paid for the ads in Russian currency.

"How could you not connect those two dots?" he asked Facebook general council Colin Stretch. "It's a signal we should have been alert to and, in hindsight, one we missed," Stretch answered."

Google logo And during the Congressional testimony:

"Google attorney Richard Salgado said his company's platform is not a newspaper, which has legal responsibilities different from technology platforms. "We are not a newspaper. We are a platform that shares information," he said. "This is a platform from which news can be read from many sources."

Separate from the Congressional testimony, Kent Walker, a Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Google, released a statement which read in part:

"... like other internet platforms, we have found some evidence of efforts to misuse our platforms during the 2016 U.S. election by actors linked to the Internet Research Agency in Russia... We have been conducting a thorough investigation related to the U.S. election across our products drawing on the work of our information security team, research into misinformation campaigns from our teams, and leads provided by other companies. Today, we are sharing results from that investigation... We will be launching several new initiatives to provide more transparency and enhance security, which we also detail in these information sheets: what we found, steps against phishing and hacking, and our work going forward..."

This matters greatly. Why? by The Economist explained that the disinformation distributed via social media and other websites:

"... aggravates the politics of contempt that took hold, in the United States at least, in the 1990s. Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise. Because each side hears time and again that the other lot are good for nothing but lying, bad faith and slander, the system has even less room for empathy. Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share. This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy, and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism..."

When citizens (via their elected representatives) can't agree nor compromise, then government gridlock results. Nothing gets done. Frustration builds among voters.

What solutions to fix these problems? The Economist article discussed several remedies: better critical-thinking skills by social media users, holding social-media companies accountable, more transparency around ads, better fact checking, anti-trust actions, and/or disallow bots (automated accounts). It will take time for social media users to improve their critical-thinking skills. Considerations about fact checking:

"When Facebook farms out items to independent outfits for fact-checking, the evidence that it moderates behavior is mixed. Moreover, politics is not like other kinds of speech; it is dangerous to ask a handful of big firms to deem what is healthy for society.

Considerations about anti-trust actions:

"Breaking up social-media giants might make sense in antitrust terms, but it would not help with political speech—indeed, by multiplying the number of platforms, it could make the industry harder to manage."

All of the solutions have advantages and disadvantages. It seems the problems will be with us for a long while. Social media has been abused... and will continue to be abused. Comments? What solutions do you think would be best?


Considerations For Consumers Affected By The Equifax Breach

Earlier this month, Discover sent me a replacement credit card. The letter with the replacement card stated:

"Notice of Data Breach
What happened: we recently learned your Discover card account might have been part of a data breach. Please know, this breach did not involve Discover card systems.
What we are doing to resolve: we are issuing you a new card with a new account number, security code, and expiration date to reduce the possibility of fraud on your account... So as a safety precaution, we are issuing you a new card to protect your Discover card account information from being misused"

Good. I like the proactive protection, and hope that the retailer absorbed the costs of replacement cards for all affected consumers like me. However, the letter from Discover didn't identify the retailer. I called Discover's customer service hotline. The phone representative wouldn't identify the retailer, either. I'd shopped at four retail stores during the past month, and assumed it was one of them. It wasn't.

Equifax logo On Saturday, I received via postal mail a breach notification letter from Equifax dated October 23, 2017:

"We are writing with regard to the cybersecurity incident Equifax announced on September 7, 2017. At Equifax, our priorities with regard to this incident are transparency and continuing to provide timely, reassuring support to every consumer. You are receiving this letter because the credit or debit card number used to pay for a freeze service, credit score, or disclosure of your Equifax credit file was accessed. We have no evidence that your credit file itself was accessed."

So, confirmation that it was Equifax's fault. What to make of this? Keep reading.

First, thanks Equifax for the postal mail notice. However, this isn't timely communication. Why? Equifax considers it's September 7th press release timely communication. How many consumers read Equifax press releases? Did you? My guess, most don't.

Thankfully, I read online newspapers and was aware of the breach soon after Equifax's September 7th announcement. Yet, my postal letter from Equifax arrived seven weeks after its September 7th press release (and almost three months after it first discovered the breach on July 29).  This incident is a reminder for consumers not to rely upon postal mail for breach notices. Many states' breach notice laws allow for companies to post public notices online in websites and/or in newspaper advertisements. This allows companies to skip (the expense of) mailing individual breach notices via postal mail.

The October 23rd Equifax breach letter also stated:

"On September 7, 2017, Equifax notified U.S. customers of the data security incident, including that 143 million U.S. consumers were impacted. On October 2, 2017, following the completion of the forensic portion of the investigation of the incident, Equifax announced that the review determined that approximately 2.5 million additional U.S. consumers were potentially impacted. Equifax also announced that credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 consumers and certain dispute documents, which included personal identifying information, for approximately 182, 000 consumers were accessed."

So, I am one of the "lucky" 209,000 consumers in the United States whose payment information was exposed stolen in addition to other sensitive personal information. Thanks Equifax for failing to protect my sensitive personal -- and payment -- information you are entrusted to protect.

Second, to upgrade earlier this year from slow, antiquated DSL to fiber broadband from Verizon, I used my credit card to pay for a temporary lift of the security freeze on my Equifax credit report. Why did Equifax retain my payment information for this transaction? Why did it retain that payment information in a complete and UN-encrypted format?

Discover's Frequently Asked Questions page for merchants advises merchants to do the following to protect consumers' highly sensitive payment card information:

"Tips for protecting customer information: a) Truncate all credit card information; b) Avoid storing CID data in your records or within sales data; c) Secure your site; d) Store data securely; e) Protect your data with firewalls; f) Limit authorized use and require passwords; g) Avoid storing customer or credit card information on your web server
Refer to your Merchant Operating Regulations for further card-not-present (CNP) requirements for the submission of sales."

So, it seems that Equifax failed to follow Discover's data security guidelines for merchants. (Browse privacy guidelines for merchants by other card issuers.) I do not have any ongoing services or subscriptions with Equifax, so there seems to be no need for it to retain my full credit card payment information. Not good. I called the Equifax customer service hotline. The phone representative could not explain why Equifax retained my payment information. Not good.

Third, Equifax failed to customize the letter for my situation. In 2008, I placed security freezes on my credit reports at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. So, Equifax already knows I have a security freeze in place, and failed to customize the letter accordingly. Rather than explain what applies to customers in my situation, instead the letter repeated the same general fraud-prevention advice for all consumers: how to contact the FTC, visit annualcreditreport.com for free copies of credit reports, file a police report if a victim of identity theft, place a fraud alert or security freeze on my credit reports for protections, and how to lift/remove an existing security freeze. Not good.

This was fast becoming a crappy customer experience.

Fourth, while on the phone with Equifax's customer service I asked if the TrustedID Premier credit monitoring service it ofered would work with the security freezes in place at all three credit reporting agencies. The phone representative said yes, but that the "credit file lock feature" would not work. What's that? According to the Equifax FAQ page:

"What is the difference between a credit file lock and a security freeze?
At their most basic level, both prevent new creditors from accessing your Equifax credit report, unless you give permission or take an action such as removing, unlocking or lifting the freeze or lock. Both a security freeze and a credit file lock help prevent a lender or other creditor from accessing a consumer’s credit report to open unauthorized new accounts.

  • Security freezes were created in the early 2000’s, are subject to regulation by each state and use a PIN based system for authentication.
  • Credit file locks were created more recently, are mobile-enabled and use modern authentication techniques, such as username and passwords and one-time passcodes for better user experience."

So, the "credit file lock" feature is new and different from a security freeze. The new feature allows mobile users to easily and quickly unlock/lock your Equifax credit reports. That seems beneficial for consumers needing frequent and quick access to credit. According to the FAQ page, the new feature will be "free, for life." The above description gives the impression that security freezes are antiquated.

To further understand this new feature, I visited the TrustedID Premier Privacy Policy page, which stated:

"The types of personal information we collect and share depend on the product or service you have with us. This information can include: Social Security number and credit card information; Payment history and transaction history; Credit scores and credit history"

The "depend on the product or service you have" seems vague and broad. Just tell me! Plus, "transaction history" could include geo-location: where you bought something since some purchases are made at brick-and-mortar retail stores. It could also include when and where you use the "credit file lock" feature. So, even though the policy doesn't explicitly mention geo-location data collection, it seems wise to assume that it does. For the new "credit file lock" feature to work on your phone, it probably needs to know your location -- where you and your phone are.

So, this new feature seems to be a slick way for Equifax to collect (and archive) location data about when, where, the duration, and frequency of consumers' travels in the physical world -- something it couldn't get previously through the traditional security freeze process. Remember, any app on your smartphone can collect location data.

Plus, the "credit file lock" feature won't work with a security freeze in place. According to the customer service representative, consumers need to remove a security freeze for the credit file lock feature to work. This is a new, important wrinkle which consumers must understand in order to make informed decisions.

The representative said it would be free to remove the security freeze on my Equifax credit report in order to use the new feature. I asked if the TrustedID Premier service Equifax offers would work with credit reports from Innovis. The rep said no. The duration of my phone call was long since the representative needed to place me on hold and check with others in order to answer my questions. This did not instill confidence.

Plus, this lengthy question-and-answer page about Equifax's services indicates that many consumers (and perhaps some Equifax customer service representatives) don't fully understand the differences between security freezes, credit file locks, and other service features.

Fifth, the letter from Equifax did not mention any of the new threats nor the additional protection steps consumers must take, both of which you can read about in this October 10th blog post. Even though I've written about privacy, data breaches and credit monitor for the past 10+ years, like you there are new things to learn. It seems that Equifax is hoping that breach victims will take the easy route: enroll in TrustedID Premier -- which is free for now, but will likely cost you later.

Overall, for me it was a crappy post-breach customer experience with Equifax. I expected better -- better data security and a better post-breach support. Plenty of news articles have documented the security problems, failures, and post-breach problems with Equifax's breach site.

What are your opinions? What do you think of the new credit file lock feature? If you've used it, share your experience in the comments section below the image.

Overview of features. TrustedID Premier service. Click to view larger version


Security Experts: Massive Botnet Forming. A 'Botnet Storm' Coming

Online security experts have detected a massive botnet -- a network of zombie robots -- forming. Its operator and purpose are both unknown. Check Point Software Technologies, a cyber security firm, warned in a blog post that its researchers:

"... had discovered of a brand new Botnet evolving and recruiting IoT devices at a far greater pace and with more potential damage than the Mirai botnet of 2016... Ominous signs were first picked up via Check Point’s Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) in the last few days of September. An increasing number of attempts were being made by hackers to exploit a combination of vulnerabilities found in various IoT devices.

With each passing day the malware was evolving to exploit an increasing number of vulnerabilities in Wireless IP Camera devices such as GoAhead, D-Link, TP-Link, AVTECH, NETGEAR, MikroTik, Linksys, Synology and others..."

Reportedly, the botnet has been named either "Reaper" or "IoTroop." The McClatchy news wire reported:

"A Chinese cybersecurity firm, Qihoo 360, says the botnet is swelling by 10,000 devices a day..."

Criminals use malware or computer viruses to add to the botnet weakly protected or insecure Internet-connect devices (commonly referred to as the internet of things, or IoT) in homes and businesses. Then, criminals use botnets to overwhelm a targeted website with page requests. This type of attack, called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), prevents valid users from accessing the targeted site; knocking the site offline. If the attack is large enough, it can disable large portions of the Internet.

A version of the attack could also include a ransom demand, where the criminals will stop the attack only after a large cash payment by the targeted company or website. With multiple sites targeted, either version of cyber attack could have huge, negative impacts upon businesses and users.

How bad was the Mirai botnet? According to the US-CERT unit within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:

"On September 20, 2016, Brian Krebs’ security blog was targeted by a massive DDoS attack, one of the largest on record... The Mirai malware continuously scans the Internet for vulnerable IoT devices, which are then infected and used in botnet attacks. The Mirai bot uses a short list of 62 common default usernames and passwords to scan for vulnerable devices... The purported Mirai author claimed that over 380,000 IoT devices were enslaved by the Mirai malware in the attack..."

Wired reported last year that after the attack on Krebs' blog, the Mirai botnet:

"... managed to make much of the internet unavailable for millions of people by overwhelming Dyn, a company that provides a significant portion of the US internet's backbone... Mirai disrupted internet service for more than 900,000 Deutsche Telekom customers in Germany, and infected almost 2,400 TalkTalk routers in the UK. This week, researchers published evidence that 80 models of Sony cameras are vulnerable to a Mirai takeover..."

The Wired report also explained the difficulty with identifying and cleaning infected devices:

"One reason Mirai is so difficult to contain is that it lurks on devices, and generally doesn't noticeably affect their performance. There's no reason the average user would ever think that their webcam—or more likely, a small business's—is potentially part of an active botnet. And even if it were, there's not much they could do about it, having no direct way to interface with the infected product."

It this seems scary, it is. The coming botnet storm has the potential to do lots of damage.

So, a word to the wise. Experts advise consumers to, a) disconnect the device from your network and reboot it before re-connecting it to the internet, b) buy internet-connected devices that support security software updates, c) change the passwords on your devices from the defaults to strong passwords, d) update the operating system (OS) software on your devices with security patches as soon as they are available, e) keep the anti-virus software on your devices current, and f) regularly backup the data on your devices.

US-CERT also advised consumers to:

"Disable Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) on routers unless absolutely necessary. Purchase IoT devices from companies with a reputation for providing secure devices... Understand the capabilities of any medical devices intended for at-home use. If the device transmits data or can be operated remotely, it has the potential to be infected."


Security Researcher Finds Unprotected Voter Files Online Affecting Up To 1.8 Million Chicagoans

While looking for unprotected data in cloud storage services, a security researcher found unprotected information for as many as 1.8 million voters in Chicago. CBS Chicago reported:

"It was Friday Aug. 11 in Silicon Valley. John Hendren, a marketing representative for IT security firm UpGuard, was looking for insecure data in the cloud. He randomly plugged in "Chicago … db," for “Chicago database,” and hit the jackpot. He found names, addresses, birth dates, driver’s license numbers and the last four digits of Social Security numbers for up to 1.8 million Chicago voters..."

How the breach happened:

"Chicago’s vendor is ES&S, out of Omaha, Nebraska. The company has been paid more than $5 million since 2014 by the Chicago Board of Elections. The company placed the data folder on Amazon Web Services (AWS) with the wrong security settings, Tom Burt, the firm’s CEO, recently told Chicago officials. Burt says managers missed the gaffe, and the database remained online for six months, until UpGuard found it. Company officials say they don’t believe the information ended up on the “dark web” for identity thieves to attain..."

The CBE's breach notice (Adobe PDF) provided a more complete list of the data elements exposed:

"... The personal information contained in the back-up files included voter names, addresses, and dates of birth, and many voters’ driver’s license and State ID numbers and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. Upon discovery of the Incident, ES&S promptly took the AWS server off-line, secured the back-up files, and commenced a forensics investigation. ES&S also hired two specialized third-party vendors to conduct searches to determine whether any personal information stored on the back-up files was available on the Dark Web. The results of ES&S’ investigations have not uncovered any evidence that any voter’s personal information stored on the AWS server was misused..."

This is bad for several reasons. First, the data elements exposed or stolen are enough for cyber criminals to do sufficient damage to breach victims. Second, just because the post-breach investigation didn't find misuse of data doesn't mean there wasn't any. It simply means they didn't find any misuse.

Third, it would be unwise to assume that the breach wasn't that bad because only the last 4 digits of Social Security numbers were exposed. Security researchers have known for a long time that Social Security numbers are easy to guess:

"... a crook need only figure out where and when you were born--information often easily found on social networking sites like Facebook--to guess your number in as few as 1000 tries... Social Security numbers were never meant to be used for widespread identification. They were conceived solely to track taxes and benefits... Every Social Security number starts with three digits known as an "area number." Smaller states might have only one, whereas New York, for example, has 85. The next two digits are "group numbers," which can be anything from 01-99, but don't correspond to anything specific. The last four digits, the "serial number," are assigned sequentially..."

So, it's long past time to stop using the last four digits of Social Security numbers as identification. Fourth, the incident makes one wonder when -- if ever -- the unprotected data folder would have been discovered by ES&S or CBE, if the security researcher hadn't found it. That's unsettling. It calls into question the security methods and managerial oversight at ES&S.

This isn't the first breach at the Chicago Board of Elections (CBE). A CBE breach in 2012 exposed the sensitive personal information of at least 1,000 voters, after initial reports estimated the number of affected voters at 1.7 million. Before that, the CBE faced several lawsuits in 2007 claiming negligence after:

"... it distributed more than 100 computer disks containing Social Security numbers and other personal data on more than 1.3 million voters to alderman and ward committee members."

Reportedly, in 2016 foreign cyber criminals hacked the Illinois Board of Elections' voter registration system. A similar attack happened in Arizona. The main takeaway: voter registration databases are high-value targets.

So, strong data security measures and methods seem wise; if not necessary. The latest incident makes one wonder about: a) the data security language and provisions in CBE's outsourcing contract with ES&S, and b) the agency's vendor oversight.

Will Chicago residents demand better data security? I hope so. What do you think?


Whole Foods Says Data Breach 'Resolved'

Whole Foods Market logo During the weekend, Whole Foods Markets announced in a customer notification update that it had "resolved" a recent data breach involving the unauthorized access of customers' payment information in certain stores. The customer notification update stated:

"Whole Foods Market has resolved the incident previously announced on September 28, 2017, involving unauthorized access of payment card information used at certain venues such as tap rooms and full table-service restaurants located within some stores. These venues use a different point of sale system than the company’s primary store checkout systems, and payment cards used at the primary store checkout systems were not affected. Whole Foods Market learned of the unauthorized access on September 23, 2017. The company conducted an investigation, obtained the help of a leading cyber security forensics firm, and contacted law enforcement. Whole Foods Market replaced these point of sale systems for payment card transactions and stopped the unauthorized activity..."

Reportedly, the breach included about 100 locations. The company operates about 473 stores nationwide.

The breach method used by criminals and the types of payment information accessed:

"The investigation determined that unauthorized software was present on the point of sale system at certain venues. The software copied payment card information—which could have included payment card account number, card expiration date, internal verification code, and cardholder name—of customers who used a payment card at these venues at dates that vary by venue but are no earlier than March 10, 2017 and no later than September 28, 2017."

Earlier this year, Amazon acquired Whole Foods for about $13.7 billion. Whole Foods said that Amazon.com systems do not connect to the payment systems at Whole Foods stores, and that transactions on the Amazon.com site were not affected. An October 20, 2017 press release repeated most of the same information as the customer notification.

Besides the replacement of affected point-of-sale terminals, the customer notification did not elaborate about exactly how the breach was "resolved," how the malware was installed in the terminals, nor how the resolution will keep this type of breach from happening again. Often, a resolution includes the hardening of certain computer systems, improved malware detection software, improved managerial oversight, and/or the training of employees. This seems especially important for retail stores with multiple, exposed payment terminals.

Within the Whole Foods website, its September 28, 2017 press release headline links to the same October 20th customer information update. It seems the company deleted the September press release. Why do this? It makes it difficult for readers to determine what's new or changed since the September 28 disclosure.

Plus, hacking details matter. As readers of this blog know, unattended, free-standing payment terminals in retail stores have long been high-value targets for criminals armed with skimming devices. Was the malware introduced locally (e.g., manually by a person) at each terminal or centrally through the company's computer network? Sadly, the update did not explain. Hopefully, future updates will.

Until then, it's hard for customers to trust that the breach was fully "resolved." Replacing the affected terminals is no guarantee that the malware won't be re-introduced into the replacement terminals. If I continue to shop there, I'll use cash. What do you think?


Hacked Butt Plug Highlights Poor Security Of Many Mobile Devices

Image of butt plug, Hush by Lovense. Click to view larger version

In a blog post on Tuesday, security researcher Giovanni Mellini  discussed how easy it was to hack a Bluetooth-enabled butt plug. Why this Internet-connected sex toy? Mellini explained that after what started as a joke he'd bought a few weeks ago:

"... a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) butt plug to test the (in)security of BLE protocol. This caught my attention after researchers told us that a lot of sex toys use this protocol to allow remote control that is insecure by design."

Another security researcher, Simone Margaritelli had previously discussed a BLE scanner he wrote called BLEAH and how to use it to hack BLE-connected devices. Mellini sought to replicate Margaritelli's hack, and was successful:

"The butt plug can be remotely controlled with a mobile application called Lovense Remote (download here). With jadx you can disassemble the java application and find the Bluetooth class used to control the device. Inside you can find the strings to be sent to the toy to start vibration... So we have all the elements to hack the sex toy with BLEAH... At the end is very easy to hack BLE protocol due to poor design choices. Welcome to 2017."

Welcome, indeed, to 2017. The seems to be the year of hacked mobile devices. Too many news reports about devices with poor (or no) security: the encryption security flaw in many home wireless routers and devices, patched Macs still vulnerable to firmware hacks, a robovac maker's plans to resell interior home maps its devices created, a smart vibrator maker paid hefty fines to settle allegations it tracked users without their knowledge nor consent, security researchers hacked a popular smart speaker, and a bungled software update bricked many customers' smart door locks.

In 2016, security researchers hacked an internet-connected vibrator.

And, that's some of the reports. All of this runs counter to consumers' needs. In August, a survey of consumers in six countries found that 90 percent believe it is important for smart devices to have security built in. Are device makers listening?

Newsweek reported:

"Lovense did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Newsweek but the sex toy company has spoken previously about the security of its products. "There are three layers of security," Lovense said in a statement last year. "The server side, the way we transfer information from the user’s phone to our server and on the client side. We take our customer’s private data very seriously, which is why we don’t serve any on our servers." "

I have nothing against sex toys. Use one or not. I don't care. My concern: supposedly smart devices should have robust security to protect consumers' privacy.

Smart shoppers want persons they authorize -- and not unknown hackers -- to remotely control their vibrators. Thoughts? Comments?


Experts Find Security Flaw In Wireless Encryption Software. Most Mobile Devices At Risk

Researchers have found a new security vulnerability which places most computers, smartphones, and wireless routers at risk. The vulnerability allows hackers to decrypt and eavesdrop on victims' wireless network traffic; plus inject content (e.g., malware) into users' wireless data streams. ZDNet reported yesterday:

"The bug, known as "KRACK" for Key Reinstallation Attack, exposes a fundamental flaw in WPA2, a common protocol used in securing most modern wireless networks. Mathy Vanhoef, a computer security academic, who found the flaw, said the weakness lies in the protocol's four-way handshake, which securely allows new devices with a pre-shared password to join the network... The bug represents a complete breakdown of the WPA2 protocol, for both personal and enterprise devices -- putting every supported device at risk."

Reportedly, the vulnerability was confirmed on Monday by U.S. Homeland Security's cyber-emergency unit US-CERT, which had warned vendors about two months ago.

What should consumers do? Experts advise consumers to update the software in all mobile devices connected to their home wireless router. Obviously, that means first contacting the maker of your home wireless router, or your Internet Service Provider (ISP), for software patches to fix the security vulnerability.

ZDNet also reported that the security flaw:

"... could also be devastating for IoT devices, as vendors often fail to implement acceptable security standards or update systems in the supply chain, which has already led to millions of vulnerable and unpatched Internet-of-things (IoT) devices being exposed for use by botnets."

So, plenty of home devices must also be updated. That includes both devices you'd expect (e.g., televisions, printers, smart speakers and assistants, security systems, door locks and cameras, utility meters, hot water heaters, thermostats, refrigerators, robotic vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers) and devices you might not expect (e.g., mouse traps, wine bottlescrock pots, toy dolls, and trash/recycle bins). One "price" of wireless convenience is the responsibility for consumers and device makers to continually update the security software in internet-connected devices. Nobody wants their home router and devices participating in scammers' and fraudsters' botnets with malicious software.

ZDNet also listed software patches by vendor. And:

"In general, Windows and newer versions of iOS are unaffected, but the bug can have a serious impact on Android 6.0 Marshmallow and newer... At the time of writing, neither Toshiba and Samsung responded to our requests for comment..."

Hopefully, all of the Internet-connected devices in your home provide for software updates. If not, then you probably have some choices ahead: whether to keep that device or upgrade to better device for security. Comments?


What We Do and Don’t Know About Facebook’s New Political Ad Transparency Initiative

[Editor's note: today's guest post is by the reporters at ProPublica. It is reprinted with permission.]

The short answer: It leaves the company some wiggle room.

Facebook logo By Julia Angwin, ProPublica

On Thursday September 21, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced several steps to make political ads on the world’s largest social network more transparent. The changes follow Facebook’s acknowledgment in September that $100,000 worth of political ads were placed during the 2016 election cycle by “inauthentic accounts” linked to Russia.

The changes also follow ProPublica’s launch of a crowdsourcing effort during September to collect political advertising from Facebook. Our goal was to ensure that political ads on Facebook, which until now have largely avoided scrutiny, receive the same level of fact-checking by journalists, advocacy groups and political opponents as do print, broadcast and radio political ads. We hope to have some results to share soon.

In the meantime, here’s what we do and don’t know about how Facebook’s changes could play out.

How does Facebook plan to increase disclosure of funders of political ads?
In his statement, Zuckerberg said that Facebook will start requiring political advertisers to disclose “which page paid for an ad.”

This is a reversal for Facebook. In 2011, the company argued to the Federal Election Commission that it would be “inconvenient and impracticable” to include disclaimers in political ads because the ads are so small in size.

While the commission was too divided to make a decision on Facebook’s request for an advisory ruling, the deadlock effectively allowed the company to continue omitting disclosures. (The commission has just reopened discussion of whether to require disclosure for internet advertising).

Now Facebook appears to have dropped its objections to adding disclosures. However, the problem with Facebook’s plan of only revealing which page purchased the ad is that the source of the money behind the page is not always clear.

What is Facebook doing to make political ads more transparent to the public?
Zuckerberg also said that Facebook will start to require political advertisers to place on their pages all the ads they are “currently running to any audience on Facebook.”

This requirement could mean the end of the so-called “dark posts” on Facebook — political ads whose origins were not easily traced. Now, theoretically, each Facebook political ad would be associated with and published on a Facebook page — either for candidates, political action committees or interest groups.

However, the word “currently” suggests that such disclosure could be fleeting. After all, ads can run on Facebook for as little as a few minutes or a few hours. And since campaigns can run dozens, hundreds or even thousands of variations of a single ad — to test which one gets the best response — it will be interesting to see whether and how they manage to display all those ads on their pages simultaneously.

“It would require a lot of vigilance on the part of users and voters to be on those pages at the exact time” that campaigns posted all of their ads, said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance reform watchdog group.

How will Facebook decide which ads are political?
It’s not clear how Facebook will decide which ads are political and which aren’t. There are several existing definitions they could choose from.

The Federal Communications Commission defines political advertising as anything that “communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance,” but those rules only apply to television and radio broadcasters. FCC rules require extensive disclosure, including the amount paid for the ads, the audiences targeted and how many times the ads run.

The Federal Election Commission has traditionally defined two major types of campaign ads. “Independent expenditures” are ads that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a “clearly identified candidate.” A slightly broader definition, “electioneering communications,” encompasses so-called “issue ads” that mention a candidate but may not directly advocate for his or her election or defeat.

The FEC only requires spending on electioneering ads to be disclosed in the 60 days leading up to a general election or the 30 days leading up to a primary election. And the electioneering communications rule does not apply to online advertising.

Of course, Facebook doesn’t have to choose of any of the existing definitions of political advertising. It could do what it did with hate speech — and make up its own rules.

How will Facebook catch future political ads secretly placed by foreigners?
The law prohibits a foreign national from making any contribution or expenditure in any U.S. election. That means that Russians who bought the ads may have broken the law, but it also means that any American who “knowingly provided substantial assistance” may also have broken the law.

In mid-September, when Facebook disclosed the Russian ad purchase, the company said it was increasing its technical efforts to identify fake and inauthentic pages and to prevent them from running ads.

Zuckerberg said the company would “strengthen our ad review process for political ads” but didn’t specify exactly how. (Separately, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in September that the company is adding more human review to its ad-buying categories, after ProPublica revealed that it allowed advertisers to target ads toward “Jew haters.”)

Zuckerberg also said Facebook will work with other tech companies and governments to share information about online risks during elections.

Will ProPublica continue crowd-sourcing Facebook political ads?
Yes, we plan to keep using our tool to monitor political advertising. In September, we worked with news outlets in Germany — Spiegel Online, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Tagesschau — to collect more than 600 political ads during the parliamentary elections.

We believe there is value to creating a permanent database of political ads that can be inspected by the public, and we intend to track whether Facebook lives up to its promises. If you want to help us, download our tool for Firefox or Chrome web browsers.

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Equifax Reported 15.2 Million Records Of U.K. Persons Exposed

Equifax logo Yesterday, Equifax's United Kingdom (UK) unit released a press release about the credit reporting agency's massive data breach and the number of breach victims. A portion of the statement:

"It has always been Equifax’s intention to write to those consumers whose information had been illegally compromised, but it would have been inappropriate and irresponsible of us to do so before we had absolute clarity on what data had been accessed. Following the completion of an independent investigation into the attack, and with agreement from appropriate investigatory authorities, Equifax has begun corresponding with affected consumers.

We would like to take this opportunity to emphasize that Equifax correspondence will never ask consumers for money or cite personal details to seek financial information, and if they receive such correspondence they should not respond. For security reasons, we will not be making any outbound telephone calls to consumers. However, customers can call our Freephone number on 0800 587 1584 for more information.

Today Equifax can confirm that a file containing 15.2m UK records dating from between 2011 and 2016 was attacked in this incident. Regrettably this file contained data relating to actual consumers as well as sizeable test data-sets, duplicates and spurious fields... we have been able to place consumers into specific risk categories and define the services to offer them in order to protect against those risks and send letters to offer them Equifax and third-party safeguards with instructions on how to get started. This work has enabled us to confirm that we will need to contact 693,665 consumers by post... The balance of the 14.5m records potentially compromised may contain the name and date of birth of certain UK consumers. Whilst this does not introduce any significant risk to these people Equifax is sorry that this data may have been accessed."

Below is the tabular information of risk categories from the Equifax UK announcement:

Consumer groups Remedial action
12,086 consumers who had an email address associated with their Equifax.co.uk account in 2014 accessed

14,961 consumers who had portions of their Equifax.co.uk membership details such as username, password, secret questions and answers and partial credit card details - from 2014 accessed

29,188 consumers who had their driving license number accessed

We will offer Equifax Protect for free. This is an identity protection service which monitors personal data. Products and services from third party organizations will also be offered at no cost to consumers. In addition to the services set-out above, further information will be outlined in the correspondence.

637,430 consumers who had their phone numbers accessed Consumers who had a phone number accessed will be offered a leading identity monitoring service for free.

Some observations seem warranted.

First, the announcement was vague about whether the 15.2 million U.K. persons affected were included in the prior breach total, or in addition to the prior total. Second, the U.K. unit will send written breach notices to all affected consumers via postal mail, while the U.S. unit refused. The U.K. unit did the right thing, so their users are confused by and don't have to access a hastily built site to see if they were affected.

Third, given the data elements stolen some U.K. breach victims are vulnerable to additional frauds and threats like breach victims in the USA.

Kudos to the Equifax U.K. unit for the postal breach notices and for clearly stating the above risk categories.


Consequences And New Threats From The Massive Equifax Breach

Equifax logo To protect themselves and their sensitive information, many victims of the massive Equifax data breach have signed up for the free credit monitoring and fraud resolution services Equifax arranged. That's a good start. Some victims have gone a step further and placed Fraud Alerts or Security Freezes on their credit reports at Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. That's good, too. But, is that enough?

The answer to that question requires an understanding of what criminals can do with the sensitive information accessed stolen during the Equifax breach. Criminals can commit types of fraud which credit monitoring, credit report alerts, and freezes cannot stop. Consumer Reports (CR) explained:

"Freezing your credit report specifically at Equifax will also prevent crooks from registering as you at the government website, my Social Security, and block them from attempting to steal your Social Security benefits. But taking these steps won't protect you against every identity fraud threat arising from the Equifax data breach."

Sadly, besides credit and loan fraud the Equifax breach exposed breach victims to tax refund fraud, health care fraud, and driver's license (identity) fraud. This is what makes the data breach particularly nasty. CR also listed the data elements criminals use with each type of fraud:

"With your Social Security number, crooks can file false income tax returns in your name, take bogus deductions, and steal the resulting refund. More than 14,000 fraudulent 2016 tax returns, with $92 million in unwarranted refunds, were detected and stopped by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as of last March... Data from the Equifax breach can be used to steal your benefits from private health insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid when the identity thief uses your coverage to pay for his own medical treatment and prescriptions... Using your driver’s license number, identity thieves can create bogus driver’s licenses and hang their moving violations on you...."

The CR article suggested several ways for consumers to protect themselves from each type of fraud: a) request an Identity Protection PIN number from the IRS; b) request copies of your medical file from your providers and review your MIB Consumer File each year; and c) request a copy of your driving license record and get your free annual consumer report from ChexSystemsCertegy, and TeleCheck -  the three major check verification companies.

Never considered reviewing your tax account with the IRS? You can. Never heard of a Consumer MIB File? I'm not surprised. Most people haven't. I encourage consumers to read the entire CR article. While at the CR site, read their review of TrustedID Premier service which Equifax arranged for breach victims. It's an eye-opener.

Do these solutions sound like a lot of preventative work? They are. You have Equifax to thank for that. Will Equifax help breach victims with the time and effort required to research and implement the solutions CR recommended? Will Equifax compensate breach victims for the costs incurred with these solutions? These are questions breach victims should ask Equifax and TrustedID Premier.

Consumers and breach victims are slowly learning the consequences of a data breach are extensive. The consequences include time, effort, money, and aggravation. You might say breach victims have been mugged. Worse, consumers are saddled the burden from the consequences. That isn't fair. The companies making money by selling consumers' credit reports and information should be responsible for the burdens. Things are out of balance.

What are your opinions?


Without Fanfare, Equifax Makes Bankruptcy Change That Affects Hundreds of Thousands

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by the reporters at ProPublica, highlights how credit reporting agencies treat certain information contained in consumers' credit reports. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Paul Kiel. ProPublica

For what appears to be decades, the credit rating agency Equifax has quietly layered three more years of tarnish on the credit histories of hundreds of thousands of people who had filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13.

While its competitors, TransUnion and Experian, placed a flag on such histories for seven years, Equifax left it on the reports of Chapter 13 filers who failed to complete their bankruptcy plans for 10.

After ProPublica asked about the difference in its policy, the company said it now leaves the flag on for seven years, but refused to say when and why the change was made.

The consequences of Equifax’s harsher policy were likely life-changing for some unlucky people. As Experian warns consumers on its website, “having a bankruptcy in your credit history will seriously affect your ability to obtain credit for as long as it remains on your report. It can also affect your ability to qualify for things like an apartment, utilities, and even employment. Even car insurance rates may be affected.” Without knowing why, consumers could have been turned down for apartments because landlords checked their Equifax report rather than those from Experian or TransUnion.

Why Equifax’s policy was different is unclear and the company would not address it. But that such a discrepancy had gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so long underscores how lightly regulated the industry is.

ProPublica contacted all of the major credit agencies earlier this year as part of our ongoing series on consumer bankruptcy. The policies of TransUnion and Experian were similar: People who filed under Chapter 7, which wipes out most debts, would have a flag on their report for 10 years; those who filed under Chapter 13, which usually involves five years of payments before debts are forgiven, would have a flag for seven.

Equifax had the same Chapter 7 policy. But the company had a key difference in its policy for Chapter 13 filers: Those who were unable to complete their five years of payments and had their cases dismissed were saddled with a flag for three additional years.

This difference had the potential for widespread impact. About half of Chapter 13 cases are dismissed, usually because debtors fall behind on payments. From 2008 through 2010, 574,000 Chapter 13 cases were filed and subsequently dismissed, according to our analysis of filings. Under Equifax’s policy of keeping the flag on for 10 years, all those debtors would have a flag on their Equifax report through the end of 2017, but not on their TransUnion and Experian histories.

“It’s a problem, because you have a disparate treatment of debtors depending on which credit rating agency is reporting,” said Tara Twomey, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “We really need consistent credit reporting for this system to work.”

Equifax’s policy also disproportionately affected black consumers, because, as our analysis showed, black debtors are more likely than whites to choose Chapter 13 and have their cases dismissed.

ProPublica wrote the company again in July, prior to its recent disclosure that its records had been hacked, laying out the potential impact of its policy on consumers and asking why it differed from competitors. In an email, Equifax spokeswoman Nancy Bistritz-Balkan wrote that the company had “recently modified the length of time for how long a dismissed Chapter 13 bankruptcy remains on file.” Under the new policy, she wrote, “Equifax removes the flag for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy after seven years, regardless of outcome.”

She would not say what “recently” meant, only saying, “The change we referenced was not implemented after we received your inquiry.” As to why Equifax made the change, she wrote, “At this time, I do not have additional details about how the change was made.”

It might seem puzzling that such a meaningful policy is not governed by law. While some aspects of credit reporting are, others are simply decided among the agencies themselves. Bankruptcy is a mix of the two. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the longest a bankruptcy can stay on someone’s credit report is 10 years. The credit rating agencies have voluntarily decided to treat Chapter 13 cases differently because Chapter 13 typically involves the repayment of some debt, while Chapter 7 does not. Bistritz-Balkan made a point of saying that Equifax’s previous policy had been legal.

Initially, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 have a similar effect on debtors’ credit scores, one that diminishes over time. Bankruptcy is a negative mark on a debtor’s history, but that doesn’t mean that declaring bankruptcy will invariably damage someone’s credit score. In fact, research shows that most people who declare bankruptcy actually see their score rise in the following months. That’s because the typical score is so low that the negative effect of the bankruptcy is outweighed by the positive effect of wiping out debt.

According to Zachary Anderson, a spokesman for FICO, the median FICO score for consumers who declared bankruptcy between October 2009 and October 2010, when filings peaked during the Great Recession, was 558 — lower than all but 20 percent of consumers with a credit score.

A recent analysis of credit files by Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, shows how scores change before and after bankruptcy. In the months prior to filing, as consumers fall deeper into debt, the average credit score plunges. The analysis, using a credit score generated by Equifax that works similarly to a FICO score, found that the average score fell to a low around 520-530, but recovered sharply over the next 6 months, then gradually increased thereafter.

Chart. Average Credit Scores Plunge Before Bankruptcy, Rise After. Click to view larger version

The next noticeable bump was seven or 10 years later, depending on the chapter, when the bankruptcy flags were removed. Consumers’ credit scores then jumped by about 10 points.

The consumers with the lowest credit scores, the analysis found, were those who had their Chapter 13 cases dismissed. That would be due, in part, to the fact that they tend to be disproportionately low-income and black, two groups with lower credit scores on average.

As we showed in our story about bankruptcy in Memphis, where Chapter 13 dismissals are incredibly common, these debtors can find themselves worse off for having tried bankruptcy. They might be even further behind on their debts after their cases are dismissed, making it harder to re-establish their credit. The effect of a dismissal lasts for years. At the very least, Equifax’s change in how it handles Chapter 13s means that the shadow cast by a past bankruptcy isn’t quite as long.

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