Security News This Week: The US Tracked Journalists Reporting on the Migrant Caravan


This week, RSA, one of the biggest cybersecurity conferences of the year took place in San Francisco. Researchers demonstrated lots of new reasons to freak out about your data security, but they also highlighted new techniques for staying safe. There’s the clever new tool that can protect Macs using Apple’s video game logic engine. And the NSA even made an appearance, revealing an open-source version of a powerful cybersecurity tool that agency had developed in house.

But of course, even amid good news, hacks and security flaws persisted. Google announced it had found a new zero-day exploit in MacOS, dubbed “Buggy Cow.” It also said it patched a security flaw in Chrome–which reminds us, you should turn on auto updates everywhere you can! An email marketing company exposed some 736 million email addresses. Sign-in kiosks are a security threat you should probably be worrying about more. A new machine learning technique can scan tweets to spot critical security flaws. Oh, and voting machines are still in total disarray.

Speaking of stories that won’t go away, this week the House freshly probed Cambridge Analytica for the role it played in Wikileaks’ publication of emails that Russian hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee. And the government is still looking for new tech ideas; the Air Force held a pitch day this week, looking for new military tech.

You also may have seen that Mark Zuckerberg announced he wanted to pivot to privacy, with a new platform that would be like Facebook but private. WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nick Thompson interviewed him about it, and then laid out nine questions Zuckerberg still needs to answer.

But of course, there's more! Each week we round up all the news we didn’t break or cover in depth. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there.

After the Migrant Caravan, the US Gov Tracked Journalists and Activists

According to documents obtained by the local NBC 7 news station in San Diego, the US government has reportedly created a secret database to track journalists, activists, and at least one lawyer. What they had in common was their interest or involvement in the 5,000-person migrant caravan, which traveled from central America to the US border in Mexico at the end of last year, becoming headline news across the world. According to the station’s reporting, the database contained information gathered jointly by the US and Mexican governments, and had details like photos, names, dates of birth, social media handles, and whether they had been arrested. In some cases, the report says US authorities placed restrictions on people’s passports as a result of their inclusion on the database. Prior to the revelation, journalists and activists around the border had reported being targeted by border security officials. NBC 7 found those names of those who had reported such treatment on the secret database. The news station reports that a Homeland Security source leaked the documents to NBC 7 on the condition of anonymity. The source told NBC 7 that officials created separate “dossiers” on each person in the database. A spokesperson for Homeland Security disputed that part of the report, but did not comment further.

Chelsea Manning Jailed For Refusal to Testify Against Julian Assange

Whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was released from prison in 2017 after serving seven years on charges of violating the espionage act, is back in jail, according to NPR News. The government took her into custody Friday after she refused to comply with a subpoena to testify in front of a grand jury against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. WikiLeaks, famously, is there Manning published the documents she stole from the US military when she was an Army private. At the time, the files she leaked and WikiLeaks published cemented Assange’s reputation as a vital supporter and enabler of whistleblowing. That was then. Now Assange is seen as a decidedly less idealist figure, reportedly raging around the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he’s lived since 2012. Apparently Manning’s testimony is wanted now to probe Assange's reported role in the DNC leak, though the details of the case are under seal.

Why Is ji32k7au4a83 Such a Common Password?

This story from Gizmodo is delightful. It also just goes to show how hard it is to get passwords right. The above string of numbers look like a pretty random and strong password, right? Then why, wondered software engineer Robert Ou, does it show up so often in breaches listed by the site HaveIBeenPwned? The answer has to do with Mandarin and a phonetic keyboard that translates from that language to English. Just read the whole story, and then get a password manager, because your smart passwords aren’t as clever as you think.

The FBI Impersonated a Pedophile on Social Media

Forbes reports that the FBI is undertaking a sting operation to ferret out pedophiles online, taking over the social media accounts of known pedophiles in order to find who they share illegal content with. In the case detailed by Forbes, the FBI got a search warrant to commandeer the Instagram and Kik accounts of a suspected pedophile. The feds then used those accounts for 18 months, “letting child exploitation material spread whilst he tried to catch other criminals,” according to the report. The account holder pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 48 months in prison for sharing and creating child pornography, after which the FBI convinced him to let them take over his accounts.

The NSA May Be Shutting Down Its Phone-Spying Program

Six years after former security contractor Edward Snowden leaked the existence of a massive NSA spying operation started in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the program may reportedly be coming to an end. According to what the national security advisor to Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy told the Lawfare Podcast, the program hasn’t been operational for six months. The New York Times reports that the Trump administration might not try to get Congress to renew it when its legal authority expires later this year. Though Snowden’s revelation prompted a new era of skepticism about government surveillance, the program may be ending not because of outrage, but because the way people communicate has changed. Encrypted messaging and other services may have supplanted the role phone calls once played in planning illegal activity.

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