Most government hackers now target cell phones, not computers, experts say

Cell Phone - IAThe majority of government-sponsored hacking now targets cell phones, not personal computers, according to researchers who say that political dissidents are especially targeted by totalitarian regimes around the world. Until 2015, most government-sponsored hacking operations were directed against the personal computers of targeted individuals. However, experts tell The Wall Street Journal that as of this year cell phones have become a far more lucrative target than personal computers in government-sponsored hacking operations. Researchers with Lookout Mobile Security, a security software company based in the United States, say that detected phone-hacking operations that are believed to be sponsored by governments have increased by a factor of 10 in the first five months of this year, compared to 2015.

According to Lookout, the increase in hacking operations targeting mobile phones reflects the proliferation of smartphone usage around the world, as well as the increase in consumption of cell phone software. Government-sponsored hackers usually compromise their targets’ cell phones through malicious software disguised as cell phone applications. The Wall Street Journal also reports that the software needed to build malicious software for cell phones has become cheaper and more readily available. Compromising a target’s cell phone provides hackers with information that is far more personal and sensitive than what can be found on a personal computer. The paper quotes Mike Murray, Lookout’s vice president of security research, who says: “It is one thing to compromise someone’s computer. It’s another thing to have a listening device that they carry around with them 24 hours a day”. Compromised phones become immensely powerful espionage tools, explains Murray.

Many of the individuals whose cell phones are targeted by governments are activists or dissidents who campaign for political or economic reforms in their countries. Their cell phones are targeted in systematic hacking campaigns by countries like Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Cambodia, and Mexico, said Lookout. The Wall Street Journal cites Raj Samani, chief scientist for the antivirus firm McAfee, who claims that nearly 11 percent of cell phones worldwide were infected with some kind of malware in 2017. That statistic is likely to rise significantly by the end of 2018, says Samani.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 June 2018 | Permalink

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High-level MI6 spy inside al-Qaeda writes book detailing his work

Aimen Dean, a.k.a. Ramzi

Aimen Dean, a.k.a. Ramzi

A Saudi-born man, who some refer to as the most valuable British-run spy inside al-Qaeda, has authored a soon-to-be-published book about his experiences. Aimen Dean, known in al-Qaeda circles simply as ‘Ramzi’, became radicalized in the first half of the 1990s in response to the Bosnian War. At that time, he traveled from his home country of Saudi Arabia to Bosnia, where he joined large numbers of foreign Muslim fighters who fought in support of Bosnian-Muslim forces. In subsequent interviews, Dean has said that he continues to view his participation in the Bosnian War as an “ethical and moral” act in defense of a “defenseless population”. Following the end of the Bosnian War, Dean joined many foreign-born fighters who followed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan. While there, he pledged allegiance to bin Laden and gained his trust.

Dean’s task in Afghanistan was to train new al-Qaeda recruits in Islamic theology and history. But he was also tasked with combat duties, which included bomb-making. He witnessed the drastic shift in al-Qaeda’s raison d’être from a group ostensibly fighting to defend Muslims under attack, to a center of a violent campaign against the West. Dean has stated that during his first period in Afghanistan, he sincerely believed that the West was involved in a systematic campaign to destroy Islam and Muslims. Gradually, however, Dean’s views began to conflict with those of al-Qaeda’s leaders. He especially objected to the use of suicide bombers and the deliberate targeting of civilians by al-Qaeda fighters. His disillusionment with al-Qaeda peaked in August of 1998, when the organization targeted the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in coordinated strikes.

During a leave of absence from al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan stronghold, Dean was approached by the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6. He says that he quickly agreed to work as a spy for the British agency and did so from 1998 until 2007, when he claims that his cover was blown. Dean has now written a book, co-authored with two CNN reporters, Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister. Entitled Nine Lives: My Time As MI6’s Top Spy Inside al-Qaeda, the book is due to appear in stores on June 7.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 May 2018 | Permalink

Russian journalist who wrote about mercenaries’ deaths in Syria is found dead

Maxim BorodinA Russian investigative journalist, who wrote a series of articles about Russian soldiers-for-hire in Syria, has died after falling from the balcony of his apartment in western Siberia. Some of his colleagues say they suspect foul play. Maxim Borodin wrote for Novy Den (New Day) an investigative online magazine. In the past few weeks, Novy Den published a series of probing articles by Borodin about the activities of Russian mercenaries working for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Borodin was one of just a handful of Russian journalists who reported on claims that more than 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in Syria on February 7.

According to the United States government, the Russians were part of a 500-strong Syrian government force that crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. American-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded US troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes against the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses, including at least 200 Russian troops. The incident was subsequently confirmed by the Kremlin, which said that the Russians were contractors and were not members of the Russian armed forces. Borodin wrote that the Russian mercenaries were employed by the Wagner Group, an arms-for-hire company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire with close ties to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s name is included in the most recent list of Russian oligarchs that are subject to economic sanctions imposed by the US government.

Last Thursday, just weeks after writing his exposé about the Wagner Group, Borodin was found by neighbors at the foot of the building that houses his apartment in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. The journalist was taken to a local hospital, where he later died from his injuries. The American news network CNN said it spoke to Valery Gorelykh, a local Russian Interior Ministry official, who said that no foul play was suspected in Borodin’s death. The door of his apartment had been locked from the inside and there were no signs of struggle, said Gorelykh. He went on to say that the most likely explanation for Borodin’s death was that he slipped and fell off the balcony while smoking a cigarette.

But some of Borodin’s colleagues and friends question the verdict of accidental death. Vyacheslav Bashkov, a close friend of the deceased, said Borodin had called him in a frantic state in the early morning hours of April 11. He said his apartment had been surrounded by armed security personnel wearing ski masks, one of whom had climbed on his balcony and appeared to be waiting for a court order so that he could search Borodin’s apartment. But an hour later, Borodin called Bashkov again, this time to let him know that the armed men had been conducting a training exercise and that they never entered his apartment after all. Another colleague of Borodin, Novy Den editor-in-chief Polina Rumyantseva, said she did not believe Borodin had committed suicide.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 April 2018 | Permalink

Syria sought out and assassinated American journalist, former spy says

Marie ColvinThe Syrian government tracked down and killed American journalist Marie Colvin in order to stop her from reporting about the Syrian Civil War, according to a Syrian intelligence officer who has defected to Europe. Colvin was an experienced war correspondent who worked for The Sunday Times. The British newspaper sent her to Syria soon after the outbreak of the war. From there, she gave live interviews to media outlets such as CNN and the BBC. But on the morning of February 22, 2012, Colvin was killed along with French war photographer Remi Ochlik. Their death came when Syrian government forces repeatedly shelled a media center in the city of Homs, which housed the two reporters.

In 2016, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a lawsuit against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming that Colvin’s death was deliberate and wrongful. The lawsuit is supported by Colvin’s family in the United States. Court records unsealed on Monday include a sworn testament by a Syrian former intelligence officer who has defected and now lives under a new identity in an undisclosed European country. The defector, codenamed ULYSSES, said that Colvin was assassinated by the Assad government as part of a concerted effort to hunt down Western journalists and local media correspondents. The ultimate purpose of the plan was to hinder international reporting about the war. The plan was allegedly carried out by the Syrian military under the guidance of the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Many of the reporters targeted for assassination were reporting from the city of Homs, where Colvin was killed.

According to ULYSSES, Syrian government forces began targeting the Homs media center after they found out that foreign journalists had managed to enter the city’s western sector from nearby Lebanon. They then employed a mobile satellite interception system to capture the journalists’ communications, which in turn revealed their precise location. At that point, Syrian troops were ordered to fire several missiles at the building housing the journalists, in full knowledge that Colvin and Ochlik were inside. In his testimony, ULYSSES claimed that Syrian intelligence officials “celebrated” when they were told that Colvin had been killed. He identified eight senior Syrian officials who he said were involved in planning the American journalist’s alleged assassination. One of them, said ULYSSES, was Maher al-Assad, President Assad’s brother, who leads the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, considered as one of the staunchest pro-government parts of the Syrian military. Testimonies in the case continue this week.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 April 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Trump has made record use of US Special Forces since becoming president

special forcesWith reports about the activities of the United States Special Forces continuously surfacing in the media lately, it is important to remember that the White House has drastically increased Special Forces deployments since Donald Trump assumed the presidency. In December last year, it was reported that President Trump had ordered the deployment of Special Forces troops more often than any other president in American history. At that time, US Special Forces troops were deployed in 150 nations, a number that represented 75 percent of all nations on the planet, according to government data. The figures were published by TomDispatch, which said it received them directly from the US Special Operations Command. The website said that American Special Forces troops were participating in wars, counter-insurgency operations and covert-action activities across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and saw action every day.

According to the statistics provided by the US Special Operations Command, it appears more than 10 percent (8,000 troops) of the US Special Operations Command’s 70,000 troops are deployed each day. These deployments take place daily in more than 80 countries. This rate of deployment represents a significant increase from the eight years of the administration of US President Barack Obama, which ended in 2016. That year, US Special Forces troops were deployed in 138 countries, according to media reports. The Trump administration’s use of Special Forces troops also represents a jump of approximately 150 percent from the last Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, which ended in early 2008.

Africa represents an area of consistent rise in the rates of deployment of US Special Forces. Currently, US Special Forces troops are active in no fewer than 33 countries across Africa. Most of these countries are witnessing activity by Islamist groups that are described as terrorist by the region’s governments. But the US Special Operations Command has also deployed contingents in Europe, said TomDispatch. Currently, the US maintains Special Forces troops at every country bordering Russia’s western region, with the exception of Belarus.

These numbers echo the record growth of the US Special Forces community since September 11, 2001, when Washington declared its global war on terrorism. Observers estimate the post-9/11 numerical growth of US Special Forces at 75 percent. However, little is known about the nature of campaigns in which US Special Forces are deployed, and whether they are effective in establishing security, or whether they inflame tensions across different battlefronts. There is also limited information about the resulting casualties. The US government has admitted that US Special Forces troops died in 2017 in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Niger, Mali and Somalia.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 March 2018 | Permalink

Argentina’s spy chief allegedly implicated in Brazil money-laundering scandal

Gustavo ArribasThe director of Argentina’s spy agency has been accused by security officials in Brazil of being implicated in a multi-million dollar money-laundering scandal that involves dozens of senior officials across Latin America. The allegations were made in the context of the so-called “operation car wash”, known in Portuguese as Operação Lava Jato. The term refers to a money-laundering probe that began in 2014, following allegations of illegal financial practices by a number of private import-export companies in Brazil. Soon, however, Lava Jato led to the exposure of large-scale corruption, nepotism and bribing practices at the core of Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras. Today, four years later, the constantly expanding investigation has implicated nearly 200 people —many of them well-known politicians— in numerous Latin American countries, including Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

On Thursday, the car wash probe appeared to implicate for the first time a senior state official in Argentina. The figure at the center of the allegations is Gustavo Arribas (pictured), the Director General of the country’s Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI). A former sports tycoon, who made his fortune as a footballers’ representative, he surprised many in December 2015 when he was appointed spy director by Argentina’s President, Mauricio Macri. Arribas has financial dealings with Brazil, where he owns real estate. But these properties may become liabilities after Arribas was accused by Victor Ferreira, a federal police official and Lava Jato investigator, of having received nearly $1 million in a money-laundering scheme involving fraudulent invoices submitted for financial compensation to the Brazilian government by bogus companies. The money was allegedly sent to Arribas via a wire transfer that was routed to him through a bank in Hong King. The transfer had not been approved by the Central Bank of Brazil, which is supposed to supervise all overseas money transfers involving government contracts.

Brazilian prosecutors served several suspects across Brazil with search warrants on Thursday, in an attempt to uncover more information about the alleged illegal money transfer. Arribas, however, issued a statement later on the same day, in which he denied any connection with Lava Jato and said that allegations against him were motivated by malice. In 2016, Arribas was accused in Argentina of having received nearly $600,000 from corrupt officials of Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which is implicated in operation car wash. However, he was cleared by a federal judge, who threw the case out of court. In his statement issued on Thursday, Arribas stressed that he had not been officially charged with any crime in Argentina or Brazil.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 March 2018 | Permalink

Philippines summons US ambassador to protest negative intelligence report

Sung KimThe United States ambassador to the Philippines has been summoned by Manila in response to the publication of an American intelligence report that described President Rodrigo Duterte as a threat to democracy. The report, published on February 13, represents a joint assessment of worldwide challenges to the interests of the United States. It is compiled annually by all 16 member agencies that make up the US Intelligence Community. This year’s report focused on the administration of President Duterte, who has led a self-styled “war on drugs, corruption and crime” in the Philippines since he assumed office in June 2016.

By the government’s own account, Duterte’s war has left more than 4,000 people dead in the past 18 months. But some human rights groups estimate the number of deaths at 11,000 or even higher. The US intelligence report notes that Duterte declared martial law in the Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao, which is expected to remain in place for most of 2018. It expresses concerns about rumors that the government may continue to impose martial law indefinitely and that it may extend it nationwide. It also expresses concern about Duterte’s prior statements that he intends to turn his government into a “revolutionary regime”.

At a press conference in Manila, President Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said that the US ambassador to the Philippines capital, Sung Kim, met with Salvador Medialdea on Tuesday. Medialdea is the president’s executive secretary, who is the highest-ranking official in Duterte’s office. According to Roque, Medialdea told the US ambassador that the Philippine embassy in Washington was prepared to “give US intelligence accurate information about the reality” of the political situation in the Philippines. He also informed Ambassador Kim that the Philippines president had respect for the rule of law. A statement issued by the US embassy in Manila said that Ambassador Kim informed Medialdea about “the nature of the […] report, which is based on widely available information”.

The meeting ended with the two officials reaffirming “the strength of the broad and deep bilateral relationship” between Washington and Manila. They also said that the US would continue to cooperate with the Philippines on political, economic and security issues. However, tensions between the two countries have been high all week. On Thursday, President Duterte accused the Central Intelligence Agency of funding Rappler.com, a very popular news and information website based in the Philippines and Indonesia, which he said was engaged in a systematic effort to undermine his administration.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 February 2018 | Permalink