The Coming Storm


16
Aug 18

Hanging Up on Mobile in the Name of Security

An entrepreneur and virtual currency investor is suing AT&T for $224 million, claiming the wireless provider was negligent when it failed to prevent thieves from hijacking his mobile account and stealing millions of dollars in cryptocurrencies. Increasingly frequent, high-profile attacks like these are prompting some experts to say the surest way to safeguard one’s online accounts may be to disconnect them from the mobile providers entirely.

The claims come in a lawsuit filed this week in Los Angeles on behalf of Michael Terpin, who co-founded the first angel investor group for bitcoin enthusiasts in 2013. Terpin alleges that crooks stole almost $24 million worth of cryptocurrency after fraudulently executing a “SIM swap” on his mobile phone account at AT&T in early 2018.

A SIM card is the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network. Customers can legitimately request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

But SIM swaps are frequently abused by scam artists who trick mobile providers into tying a target’s service to a new SIM card and mobile phone that the attackers control. Unauthorized SIM swaps often are perpetrated by fraudsters who have already stolen or phished a target’s password, as many banks and online services rely on text messages to send users a one-time code that needs to be entered in addition to a password for online authentication.

Terpin alleges that on January 7, 2018, someone requested an unauthorized SIM swap on his AT&T account, causing his phone to go dead and sending all incoming texts and phone calls to a device the attackers controlled. Armed with that access, the intruders were able to reset credentials tied to his cryptocurrency accounts and siphon nearly $24 million worth of digital currencies.

According to Terpin, this was the second time in six months someone had hacked his AT&T number. On June 11, 2017, Terpin’s phone went dead. He soon learned his AT&T password had been changed remotely after 11 attempts in AT&T stores had failed. At the time, AT&T suggested Terpin take advantage of the company’s “extra security” feature — a customer-specified six-digit PIN which is required before any account changes can be made.

Terpin claims an investigation by AT&T into the 2018 breach found that an employee at an AT&T store in Norwich, Conn. somehow executed the SIM swap on his account without having to enter his “extra security” PIN, and that AT&T knew or should have known that employees could bypass its customer security measures.

Terpin is suing AT&T for his $24 million worth of cryptocurrencies, plus $200 million in punitive damages. A copy of his complaint is here (PDF).

AT&T declined to comment on specific claims in the lawsuit, saying only in a statement that, “We dispute these allegations and look forward to presenting our case in court.”

AN ‘IDENTITY CRISIS’?

Mobile phone companies are a major weak point in authentication because so many companies have now built their entire procedure for authenticating customers on a process that involves sending a one-time code to the customer via SMS or automated phone call.

In some cases, thieves executing SIM swaps have already phished or otherwise stolen a target’s bank or email password. But many major social media platforms — such as Instagramallow users to reset their passwords using nothing more than text-based (SMS) authentication, meaning thieves can hijack those accounts just by having control over the target’s mobile phone number.

Allison Nixon is director of security research at Flashpoint, a security company in New York City that has been closely tracking the murky underworld of communities that teach people how to hijack phone numbers assigned to customer accounts at all of the major mobile providers.

Nixon calls the current SIM-jacking craze “a major identity crisis” for cybersecurity on multiple levels.

“Phone numbers were never originally intended as an identity document, they were designed as a way to contact people,” Nixon said. “But because of all these other companies are building in security measures, a phone number has become an identity document.”

In essence, mobile phone companies have become “critical infrastructure” for security precisely because so much is riding on who controls a given mobile number. At the same time, so little is needed to undo weak security controls put in place to prevent abuse.

“The infrastructure wasn’t designed to withstand the kind of attacks happening now,” Nixon said. “The protocols need to be changed, and there are probably laws affecting the telecom companies that need to be reviewed in light of how these companies have evolved.”

Unfortunately, with the major mobile providers so closely tied to your security, there is no way you can remove the most vulnerable chunks of this infrastructure — the mobile store employees who can be paid or otherwise bamboozled into helping these attacks succeed.

No way, that is, unless you completely disconnect your mobile phone number from any sort of SMS-based authentication you currently use, and replace it with Internet-based telephone services that do not offer “helpful” customer support — such as Google Voice.

Google Voice lets users choose a phone number that gets tied to their Google account, and any calls or messages to that number will be forwarded to your mobile number. But unlike phone numbers issued by the major mobile providers, Google Voice numbers can’t be stolen unless someone also hacks your Google password — in which case you likely have much bigger problems.

With Google Voice, there is no customer service person who can be conned over the phone into helping out. There is no retail-store employee who will sell access to your SIM information for a paltry $80 payday. In this view of security, customer service becomes a customer disservice.

Mind you, this isn’t my advice. The above statement summarizes the arguments allegedly made by one of the most accomplished SIM swap thieves in the game today. On July 12, 2018, police in California arrested Joel Ortiz, a 20-year-old college student from Boston who’s accused of using SIM swaps to steal more than $5 million in cryptocurrencies from 40 victims.

Ortiz allegedly had help from a number of unnamed accomplices who collectively targeted high-profile and wealthy people in the cryptocurrency space. In one of three brazen attacks at a bitcoin conference this year, Ortiz allegedly used his SIM swapping skills to steal more than $1.5 million from a cryptocurrency entrepreneur, including nearly $1 million the victim had crowdfunded.

A July 2018 posting from the “OG” Instagram account “0”, allegedly an account hijacked by Joel Ortiz (pictured holding an armload of Dom Perignon champagne).

Ortiz reportedly was a core member of OGUsers[dot]com, a forum that’s grown wildly popular among criminals engaging in SIM swaps to steal cryptocurrency and hijack high-value social media accounts. OG is short for “original gangster,” and it refers to a type of “street cred” for possession of social media account names that are relatively short (between one and six characters). On ogusers[dot]com, Ortiz allegedly picked the username “j”. Short usernames are considered more valuable because they confer on the account holder the appearance of an early adopter on most social networks.

Discussions on the Ogusers forum indicate Ortiz allegedly is the current occupant of perhaps the most OG username on Twitter — an account represented by the number zero “0”. The alias displayed on that twitter profile is “j0”. He also apparently controls the Instagram account by the same number, as well as the Instagram account “t”, which lists its alias as “Joel.”

Shown below is a cached snippet from an Ogusers forum posting by “j” (allegedly Ortiz), advising people to remove their mobile phone number from all important multi-factor authentication options, and to replace it with something like Google Voice.

Ogusers SIM swapper “j” advises forum members on how not to become victims of SIM swapping. Click to enlarge.

Continue reading →


7
Aug 18

Florida Man Arrested in SIM Swap Conspiracy

Police in Florida have arrested a 25-year-old man accused of being part of a multi-state cyber fraud ring that hijacked mobile phone numbers in online attacks that siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from victims.

On July 18, 2018, Pasco County authorities arrested Ricky Joseph Handschumacher, an employee of the city of Port Richey, Fla, charging him with grand theft and money laundering. Investigators allege Handschumacher was part of a group of at least nine individuals scattered across multiple states who for the past two years have drained bank accounts via an increasingly common scheme involving mobile phone “SIM swaps.”

A SIM card is the tiny, removable chip in a mobile device that allows it to connect to the provider’s network. Customers can legitimately request a SIM swap when their existing SIM card has been damaged, or when they are switching to a different phone that requires a SIM card of another size.

But SIM swaps are frequently abused by scam artists who trick mobile providers into tying a target’s service to a new SIM card and mobile phone that the attackers control. Unauthorized SIM swaps often are perpetrated by fraudsters who have already stolen or phished a target’s password, as many banks and online services rely on text messages to send users a one-time code that needs to be entered in addition to a password for online authentication.

In some cases, fraudulent SIM swaps succeed thanks to lax authentication procedures at mobile phone stores. In other instances, mobile store employees work directly with cyber criminals to help conduct unauthorized SIM swaps, as appears to be the case with the crime gang that allegedly included Handschumacher.

A WORRIED MOM

According to court documents, investigators first learned of the group’s activities in February 2018, when a Michigan woman called police after she overheard her son talking on the phone and pretending to be an AT&T employee. Officers responding to the report searched the residence and found multiple cell phones and SIM cards, as well as files on the kid’s computer that included “an extensive list of names and phone numbers of people from around the world.”

The following month, Michigan authorities found the same individual accessing personal consumer data via public Wi-Fi at a local library, and seized 45 SIM cards, a laptop and a Trezor wallet — a hardware device designed to store crytpocurrency account data. In April 2018, the mom again called the cops on her son — identified only as confidential source #1 (“CS1”) in the criminal complaint — saying he’d obtained yet another mobile phone.

Once again, law enforcement officers were invited to search the kid’s residence, and this time found two bags of SIM cards and numerous driver’s licenses and passports. Investigators said they used those phony documents to locate and contact several victims; two of the victims each reported losing approximately $150,000 in cryptocurrencies after their phones were cloned; the third told investigators her account was drained of $50,000.

CS1 later told investigators he routinely conducted the phone cloning and cashouts in conjunction with eight other individuals, including Handschumacher, who allegedly used the handle “coinmission” in the group’s daily chats via Discord and Telegram. Search warrants revealed that in mid-May 2018 the group worked in tandem to steal 57 bitcoins from one victim — then valued at almost $470,000 — and agreed to divide the spoils among members.

GRAND PLANS

Investigators soon obtained search warrants to monitor the group’s Discord server chat conversations, and observed Handschumacher allegedly bragging in these chats about using the proceeds of his alleged crimes to purchase land, a house, a vehicle and a “quad vehicle.” Interestingly, Handschumacher’s public Facebook page remains public, and is replete with pictures that he posted of recent new vehicle aquisitions, including a pickup truck and multiple all-terrain vehicles and jet skis.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s office says their surveillance of the Discord server revealed that the group routinely paid employees at cellular phone companies to assist in their attacks, and that they even discussed a plan to hack accounts belonging to the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Gemini Trust Company. The complaint doesn’t mention the CEO by name, but the current CEO is bitcoin billionaire Tyler Winklevoss, who co-founded the exchange along with his twin brother Cameron.

“Handschumacher and another co-conspirator talk about compromising the CEO of Gemini and posted his name, date of birth, Skype username and email address into the conversation,” the complaint reads. “Handschumacher and the co-conspirators discuss compromising the CEO’s Skype account and T-Mobile account. The co-conspirator states he will call his ‘guy’ at T-Mobile to ask about the CEO’s account.” Continue reading →


2
Aug 18

The Year Targeted Phishing Went Mainstream

A story published here on July 12 about a new sextortion-based phishing scheme that invokes a real password used by each recipient has become the most-read piece on KrebsOnSecurity since this site launched in 2009. And with good reason — sex sells (the second most-read piece here was my 2015 scoop about the Ashley Madison hack).

But beneath the lurid allure of both stories lies a more unsettling reality: It has never been easier for scam artists to launch convincing, targeted phishing and extortion scams that are automated on a global scale. And given the sheer volume of hacked and stolen personal data now available online, it seems almost certain we will soon witness many variations on these phishing campaigns that leverage customized data elements to enhance their effectiveness.

The sextortion scheme that emerged this month falsely claims to have been sent from a hacker who’s compromised your computer and used your webcam to record a video of you while you were watching porn. The missive threatens to release the video to all your contacts unless you pay a Bitcoin ransom.

What spooked people most about this scam was that its salutation included a password that each recipient legitimately used at some point online. Like most phishing attacks, the sextortion scheme that went viral this month requires just a handful of recipients to fall victim for the entire scheme to be profitable.

From reviewing the Bitcoin addresses readers shared in the comments on that July 12 sextortion story, it is clear this scam tricked dozens of people into paying anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars in Bitcoin. All told, those addresses received close to $100,000 in payments over the past two weeks.

And that is just from examining the Bitcoin addresses posted here; the total financial haul from different versions of this attack is likely far higher. A more comprehensive review by the Twitter user @SecGuru_OTX and posted to Pastebin suggests that as of July 26 there were more than 300 Bitcoin addresses used to con at least 150 victims out of a total of 30 Bitcoins, or approximately $250,000.

There are several interesting takeaways from this phishing campaign. The first is that it effectively inverted a familiar threat model: Most phishing campaigns try to steal your password, whereas this one leads with it.

A key component of a targeted phishing attack is personalization. And purloined passwords are an evergreen lure because your average Internet user hasn’t the slightest inkling of just how many of their passwords have been breached, leaked, lost or stolen over the years.

This was evidenced by the number of commenters here who acknowledged that the password included in the extortion email was one they were still using, with some even admitting they were using the password at multiple sites! 

Surprisingly, none of the sextortion emails appeared to include a Web site link of any kind. But consider how effective this “I’ve got your password” scam would be at enticing a fair number of recipients into clicking on one.

In such a scenario, the attacker might configure the link to lead to an “exploit kit,” crimeware designed to be stitched into hacked or malicious sites that exploits a variety of Web-browser vulnerabilities for the purposes of installing malware of the attacker’s choosing.

Also, most of the passwords referenced in the sextortion campaign appear to have been slurped from data breaches that are now several years old. For example, many readers reported that the password they received was the one compromised in LinkedIn’s massive 2012 data breach.

Now imagine how much more convincing such a campaign would be if it leveraged a fresh password breach — perhaps one that the breached company wasn’t even aware of yet.

There are many other data elements that could be embedded in extortion emails to make them more believable, particularly with regard to freshly-hacked databases. For example, it is common for user password databases that are stolen from hacked companies to include the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses used by each user upon registering their account.

This could be useful for phishers because there are many automated “geo-IP” services that try to determine the geographical location of Website visitors based on their Internet addresses.

Some of these services allow users to upload large lists of IP addresses and generate links that plot each address on Google Maps. Suddenly, the phishing email not only includes a password you are currently using, but it also bundles a Google Street View map of your neighborhood!

There are countless other ways these schemes could become far more personalized and terrifying — all in an automated fashion. The point is that automated, semi-targeted phishing campaigns are likely here to stay.

Continue reading →


27
Jul 18

State Govts. Warned of Malware-Laden CD Sent Via Snail Mail from China

Here’s a timely reminder that email isn’t the only vector for phishing attacks: Several U.S. state and local government agencies have reported receiving strange letters via snail mail that include malware-laden compact discs (CDs) apparently sent from China, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

This particular ruse, while crude and simplistic, preys on the curiosity of recipients who may be enticed into popping the CD into a computer. According to a non-public alert shared with state and local government agencies by the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), the scam arrives in a Chinese postmarked envelope and includes a “confusingly worded typed letter with occasional Chinese characters.”

Several U.S. state and local government agencies have reported receiving this letter, which includes a malware-laden CD. Images copyright Sarah Barsness.

The MS-ISAC said preliminary analysis of the CDs indicate they contain Mandarin language Microsoft Word (.doc) files, some of which include malicious Visual Basic scripts. So far, State Archives, State Historical Societies, and a State Department of Cultural Affairs have all received letters addressed specifically to them, the MS-ISAC says. It’s not clear if anyone at these agencies was tricked into actually inserting the CD into a government computer.

I’m sure many readers could think of clever ways that this apparent mail-based phishing campaign could be made more effective or believable, such as including tiny USB drives instead of CDs, or at least a more personalized letter that doesn’t look like it was crafted by someone without a mastery of the English language.

Nevertheless, attacks like this are a reminder that cybercrime can take many forms. The first of Krebs’s 3 Basic Rules for Online Safety — “If you didn’t go looking for it don’t install it” — applies just as well here: If you didn’t go looking for it, don’t insert it or open it.


25
Jul 18

LifeLock Bug Exposed Millions of Customer Email Addresses

Identity theft protection firm LifeLock — a company that’s built a name for itself based on the promise of helping consumers protect their identities online — may have actually exposed customers to additional attacks from ID thieves and phishers. The company just fixed a vulnerability on its site that allowed anyone with a Web browser to index email addresses associated with millions of customer accounts, or to unsubscribe users from all communications from the company.

The upshot of this weakness is that cyber criminals could harvest the data and use it in targeted phishing campaigns that spoof LifeLock’s brand. Of course, phishers could spam the entire world looking for LifeLock customers without the aid of this flaw, but nevertheless the design of the company’s site suggests that whoever put it together lacked a basic understanding of Web site authentication and security.

LifeLock’s Web site exposed customer email addresses by tying each customer account to a numeric “subscriberkey” that could be easily enumerated. Pictured above is customer number 55,739,477. Click to enlarge.

Pictured above is a redacted screen shot of one such record (click the image to enlarge). Notice how the format of the link in the browser address bar ends with the text “subscriberkey=” followed by a number. Each number corresponds to a customer record, and the records appear to be sequential. Translation: It would be trivial to write a simple script that pulls down the email address of every LifeLock subscriber.

Security firm Symantec, which acquired LifeLock in November 2016 for $2.3 billion, took LifeLock.com offline shortly after being contacted by KrebsOnSecurity. According to LifeLock’s marketing literature as of January 2017, the company has more than 4.5 million customer accounts.

KrebsOnSecurity was alerted to the glaring flaw by Nathan Reese, a 42-year-old freelance security researcher based in Atlanta who is also a former LifeLock subscriber. Reese said he discovered the data leak after receiving an email to the address he had previously used at LifeLock, and that the message offered him a discount for renewing his membership.

Clicking the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the email brought up a page showing his subscriber key. From there, Reese said, he wrote a proof-of-concept script that began sequencing numbers and pulling down email addresses. Reese said he stopped the script after it enumerated approximately 70 emails because he didn’t want to set off alarm bells at LifeLock.

“If I were a bad guy, I would definitely target your customers with a phishing attack because I know two things about them,” Reese said. “That they’re a LifeLock customer and that I have those customers’ email addresses. That’s a pretty sharp spear for my spear phishing right there. Plus, I definitely think the target market of LifeLock is someone who is easily spooked by the specter of cybercrime.”

LifeLock’s Web site is currently offline.

Misconfigurations like the one described above are some of the most common ways that companies leak customer data, but they’re also among the most preventable. Earlier this year, KrebsOnSecurity broke a story about a similar flaw at Panerabread.com, which exposed tens of millions of customer records — including names, email and physical addresses, birthdays and the last four digits of the customer’s credit card.

Update, 7:40 p.m.: Corrected the number of LifeLock subscribers based on a 2017 estimate by Symantec.

Update, July 26, 7:32 a.m.: Symantec issued the following statement in response to this article:

This issue was not a vulnerability in the LifeLock member portal. The issue has been fixed and was limited to potential exposure of email addresses on a marketing page, managed by a third party, intended to allow recipients to unsubscribe from marketing emails. Based on our investigation, aside from the 70 email address accesses reported by the researcher, we have no indication at this time of any further suspicious activity on the marketing opt-out page.


12
Jul 18

Sextortion Scam Uses Recipient’s Hacked Passwords

Here’s a clever new twist on an old email scam that could serve to make the con far more believable. The message purports to have been sent from a hacker who’s compromised your computer and used your webcam to record a video of you while you were watching porn. The missive threatens to release the video to all your contacts unless you pay a Bitcoin ransom. The new twist? The email now references a real password previously tied to the recipient’s email address.

The basic elements of this sextortion scam email have been around for some time, and usually the only thing that changes with this particular message is the Bitcoin address that frightened targets can use to pay the amount demanded. But this one begins with an unusual opening salvo:

“I’m aware that <substitute password formerly used by recipient here> is your password,” reads the salutation.

The rest is formulaic:

You don’t know me and you’re thinking why you received this e mail, right?

Well, I actually placed a malware on the porn website and guess what, you visited this web site to have fun (you know what I mean). While you were watching the video, your web browser acted as a RDP (Remote Desktop) and a keylogger which provided me access to your display screen and webcam. Right after that, my software gathered all your contacts from your Messenger, Facebook account, and email account.

What exactly did I do?

I made a split-screen video. First part recorded the video you were viewing (you’ve got a fine taste haha), and next part recorded your webcam (Yep! It’s you doing nasty things!).

What should you do?

Well, I believe, $1400 is a fair price for our little secret. You’ll make the payment via Bitcoin to the below address (if you don’t know this, search “how to buy bitcoin” in Google).

BTC Address: 1Dvd7Wb72JBTbAcfTrxSJCZZuf4tsT8V72
(It is cAsE sensitive, so copy and paste it)

Important:

You have 24 hours in order to make the payment. (I have an unique pixel within this email message, and right now I know that you have read this email). If I don’t get the payment, I will send your video to all of your contacts including relatives, coworkers, and so forth. Nonetheless, if I do get paid, I will erase the video immidiately. If you want evidence, reply with “Yes!” and I will send your video recording to your 5 friends. This is a non-negotiable offer, so don’t waste my time and yours by replying to this email.

Continue reading →


6
Jul 18

ExxonMobil Bungles Rewards Card Debut

Energy giant ExxonMobil recently sent snail mail letters to its Plenti rewards card members stating that the points program was being replaced with a new one called Exxon Mobil Rewards+. Unfortunately, the letter includes a confusing toll free number and directs customers to a parked page that tries to foist Web browser extensions on visitors.

The mailer (the first page of which is screenshotted below) urges customers to visit exxonmobilrewardsplus[dot]com, to download its mobile app, and to call “1-888-REWARD+” with any questions. It may not be immediately obvious, but that “+” sign is actually the same thing as a zero on the telephone keypad (although I’m ashamed to say I had to look that up online to be sure).

Anyone curious enough to guess at other ending numbers other than zero will wind up at a call center advertising “free” Caribbean (1) cruises or at a pricey adult chat service dubbed “America’s hottest talk line” (6).

Worse, visiting the company’s new rewards Web site in Google Chrome prompted my browser to run a “security check,” followed by a series of popups offering to install a Chrome extension called “Browsing Safely.”

That extension changes your default search engine to Yahoo and appears to redirect all searches through a domain called lastlog[dot]in, which seems to be affiliated with an Israeli online advertising network. After adding the Browsing Safely extension to Chrome using a virtual machine, my browser was redirected to Exxon.com.

The Google Chrome extension offered when I first visited exxonmobilrewardsplus-dot-com.

Many people on Twitter who expressed confusion about the mailer said they accidentally added an “e” to the end of “exxonmobil” and ended up getting bounced around to spammy-looking sites with ad redirects and dodgy download offers.

ExxonMobil corporate has not yet responded to requests for comment. But after about 10 minutes on hold listening to the same Muzak-like song, I was able to reach a customer service person at the confusing ExxonMobil Rewards+ phone number. That person said the Web site for the rewards program wasn’t going to be active until July 11.

“Currently the Web site is not available,” the representative said. “Please don’t try to download anything from it right now. It should be active and available next week.”

It always amazes me when major companies with oodles of cash (ExxonMobil made $20 billion last year) roll out new marketing initiatives without consulting professionals who help mitigate security and privacy issues for a living. It seems likely that happened in this case because anyone who knows a thing or two about security would strongly advise against instructing customers to visit a parked domain or one that isn’t yet fully under the company’s control.

Update, July 11, 11:36 a.m. ET: As several readers have observed in the comments below, it appears that ExxonMobil has registered a different domain for its new rewards program: https://exxonandmobilrewardsplus.com/welcome/home (note the inclusion of the word “and” between Exxon and Mobil). This domain is advertised as the official new rewards program domain via ExxonMobil’s corporate homepage, exxon.com (albeit via a redirect).


22
Jun 18

Supreme Court: Police Need Warrant for Mobile Location Data

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the government needs to obtain a court-ordered warrant to gather location data on mobile device users. The decision is a major development for privacy rights, but experts say it may have limited bearing on the selling of real-time customer location data by the wireless carriers to third-party companies.

Image: Wikipedia.

At issue is Carpenter v. United States, which challenged a legal theory the Supreme Court outlined more than 40 years ago known as the “third-party doctrine.” The doctrine holds that people who voluntarily give information to third parties — such as banks, phone companies, email providers or Internet service providers (ISPs) — have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

That framework in recent years has been interpreted to allow police and federal investigators to obtain information — such as mobile location data — from third parties without a warrant. But in a 5-4 ruling issued today that flies in the face of the third-party doctrine, the Supreme Court cited “seismic shifts in digital technology” allowing wireless carriers to collect “deeply revealing” information about mobile users that should be protected by the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is intended to shield Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

Amy Howe, a reporter for SCOTUSblog.com, writes that the decision means police will generally need to get a warrant to obtain cell-site location information, a record of the cell towers (or other sites) with which a cellphone connected.

The ruling is no doubt a big win for privacy advocates, but many readers have been asking whether this case has any bearing on the sharing or selling of real-time customer location data by the mobile providers to third party companies. Last month, The New York times revealed that a company called Securus Technologies had been selling this highly sensitive real-time location information to local police forces across the United States, thanks to agreements the company had in place with the major mobile providers.

It soon emerged that Securus was getting its location data second-hand through a company called 3Cinteractive, which in turn was reselling data from California-based “location aggregator” LocationSmart. Roughly two weeks after The Times’ scoop, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that anyone could look up the real time location data for virtually any phone number assigned by the major carriers, using a buggy try-before-you-buy demo page that LocationSmart had made available online for years to showcase its technology.

Since those scandals broke, LocationSmart disabled its promiscuous demo page. More importantly, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon all have said they are now in the process of terminating agreements with third-parties to share this real-time location data.

Still, there is no law preventing the mobile providers from hashing out new deals to sell this data going forward, and many readers here have expressed concerns that the carriers can and eventually will do exactly that.

So the question is: Does today’s Supreme Court ruling have any bearing whatsoever on mobile providers sharing location data with private companies?

According to SCOTUSblog’s Howe, the answer is probably “no.”

“[Justice] Roberts emphasized that today’s ruling ‘is a narrow one’ that applies only to cell-site location records,” Howe writes. “He took pains to point out that the ruling did not ‘express a view on matters not before us’ – such as obtaining cell-site location records in real time, or getting information about all of the phones that connected to a particular tower at a particular time. He acknowledged that law-enforcement officials might still be able to obtain cell-site location records without a warrant in emergencies, to deal with ‘bomb threats, active shootings, and child abductions.'” Continue reading →


19
Jun 18

AT&T, Sprint, Verizon to Stop Sharing Customer Location Data With Third Parties

In the wake of a scandal involving third-party companies leaking or selling precise, real-time location data on virtually all Americans who own a mobile phone, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon now say they are terminating location data sharing agreements with third parties.

At issue are companies known in the wireless industry as “location aggregators,” entities that manage requests for real-time customer location data for a variety of purposes, such as roadside assistance and emergency response. These aggregators are supposed to obtain customer consent before divulging such information, but several recent incidents show that this third-party trust model is fundamentally broken.

On May 10, 2018, The New York Times broke the story that a little-known data broker named Securus was selling local police forces around the country the ability to look up the precise location of any cell phone across all of the major U.S. mobile networks.

Then it emerged that Securus had been hacked, its database of hundreds of law enforcement officer usernames and passwords plundered. We also learned that Securus’ data was ultimately obtained from a company called 3Cinteractive, which in turn obtained its data through a California-based location tracking firm called LocationSmart.

On May 17, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news of research by Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Robert Xiao, who discovered that a LocationSmart try-before-you-buy opt-in demo of the company’s technology was wide open — allowing real-time lookups from anyone on anyone’s mobile device — without any sort of authentication, consent or authorization.

LocationSmart disabled its demo page shortly after that story. By that time, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had already sent letters to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, asking them to detail any agreements to share real-time customer location data with third-party data aggregation firms.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all said they had terminated data-sharing agreements with Securus. In a written response (PDF) to Sen. Wyden, Sprint declined to share any information about third-parties with which it may share customer location data, and it was the only one of the four carriers that didn’t say it was terminating any data-sharing agreements.

T-Mobile and Verizon each said they both share real-time customer data with two companies — LocationSmart and another firm called Zumigo, noting that these companies in turn provide services to a total of approximately 75 other customers.

Verizon emphasized that Zumigo — unlike LocationSmart — has never offered any kind of mobile location information demo service via its site. Nevertheless, Verizon said it had decided to terminate its current location aggregation arrangements with both LocationSmart and Zumigo.

“Verizon has notified these location aggregators that it intends to terminate their ability to access and use our customers’ location data as soon as possible,” wrote Karen Zacharia, Verizon’s chief privacy officer. “We recognize that location information can provide many pro-consumer benefits. But our review of our location aggregator program has led to a number of internal questions about how best to protect our customers’ data. We will not enter into new location aggregation arrangements unless and until we are comfortable that we can adequately protect our customers’ location data through technological advancements and/or other practices.”

In its response (PDF), AT&T made no mention of any other company besides Securus. AT&T indicated it had no intention to stop sharing real-time location data with third-parties, stating that “without an aggregator, there would be no practical and efficient method to facilitate requests across different carriers.”

Sen. Wyden issued a statement today calling on all wireless companies to follow Verizon’s lead.

“Verizon deserves credit for taking quick action to protect its customers’ privacy and security,” Wyden said. “After my investigation and follow-up reports revealed that middlemen are selling Americans’ location to the highest bidder without their consent, or making it available on insecure web portals, Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off. In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to continuing to sell their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.”

Update, 5:20 p.m. ET: Shortly after Verizon’s letter became public, AT&T and Sprint have now said they, too, will start terminating agreements to share customer location data with third parties.

“Based on our current internal review, Sprint is beginning the process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data,” the company said in an emailed statement. “This will take some time in order to unwind services to consumers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention services. Sprint previously suspended all data sharing with LocationSmart on May 25, 2018. We are taking this further step to ensure that any instances of unauthorized location data sharing for purposes not approved by Sprint can be identified and prevented if location data is shared inappropriately by a participating company.”

AT&T today also issued a statement: “Our top priority is to protect our customers’ information, and, to that end, we will be ending our work with aggregators for these services as soon as practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance.”

KrebsOnSecurity asked T-Mobile if the company planned to follow suit, and was referred to a tweet today from T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who wrote: “I’ve personally evaluated this issue & have pledged that T-Mobile will not sell customer location data to shady middlemen.” In a follow-up statement shared by T-Mobile, the company said, “We ended all transmission of customer data to Securus and we are terminating our location aggregator agreements.

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Jun 18

Librarian Sues Equifax Over 2017 Data Breach, Wins $600

In the days following revelations last September that big-three consumer credit bureau Equifax had been hacked and relieved of personal data on nearly 150 million people, many Americans no doubt felt resigned and powerless to control their information. But not Jessamyn West. The 49-year-old librarian from a tiny town in Vermont took Equifax to court. And now she’s celebrating a small but symbolic victory after a small claims court awarded her $600 in damages stemming from the 2017 breach.

Vermont librarian Jessamyn West sued Equifax over its 2017 data breach and won $600 in small claims court. Others are following suit.

Just days after Equifax disclosed the breach, West filed a claim with the local Orange County, Vt. courthouse asking a judge to award her almost $5,000. She told the court that her mother had just died in July, and that it added to the work of sorting out her mom’s finances while trying to respond to having the entire family’s credit files potentially exposed to hackers and identity thieves.

The judge ultimately agreed, but awarded West just $690 ($90 to cover court fees and the rest intended to cover the cost of up to two years of payments to online identity theft protection services).

In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, West said she’s feeling victorious even though the amount awarded is a drop in the bucket for Equifax, which reported more than $3.4 billion in revenue last year.

“The small claims case was a lot more about raising awareness,” said West, a librarian at the Randolph Technical Career Center who specializes in technology training and frequently conducts talks on privacy and security.

“I just wanted to change the conversation I was having with all my neighbors who were like, ‘Ugh, computers are hard, what can you do?’ to ‘Hey, here are some things you can do’,” she said. “A lot of people don’t feel they have agency around privacy and technology in general. This case was about having your own agency when companies don’t behave how they’re supposed to with our private information.”

West said she’s surprised more people aren’t following her example. After all, if just a tiny fraction of the 147 million Americans who had their Social Security number, date of birth, address and other personal data stolen in last year’s breach filed a claim and prevailed as West did, it could easily cost Equifax tens of millions of dollars in damages and legal fees.

“The paperwork to file the claim was a little irritating, but it only cost $90,” she said. “Then again, I could see how many people probably would see this as a lark, where there’s a pretty good chance you’re not going to see that money again, and for a lot of people that probably doesn’t really make things better.”

Equifax is currently the target of several class action lawsuits related to the 2017 breach disclosure, but there have been a few other minor victories in state small claims courts.

In January, data privacy enthusiast Christian Haigh wrote about winning an $8,000 judgment in small claims court against Equifax for its 2017 breach (the amount was reduced to $5,500 after Equifax appealed).

Haigh is co-founder of litigation finance startup Legalist. According to Inc.com, Haigh’s company has started funding other people’s small claims suits against Equifax, too. (Legalist pays lawyers in plaintiff’s suits on an hourly basis, and takes a contingency fee if the case is successful.)

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