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The year of surveillance

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The spectre of George Orwell’s 1984 loomed large this year as governments around the world made moves to increase their abilities to spy on citizens, according to NordVPN, which offers some advice.

It seems that in 2016 Internet privacy has experienced a string of shocks around the world. A Polish law was instated that loosened spying restrictions for police, the UK received Investigatory Powers Bill, Rule 41 in the U.S. gave the FBI hacking powers and Belarus was able to block the TOR network.

Restricting Internet privacy and interfering with people’s lives by mass surveillance brings fear to the society and dramatically increases the likelihood of criminal activity – not only by governments, but to whoever is able to hack, intercept or otherwise manipulate the system.

Below is the NordVPN review of the Year in Online Privacy, and some suggestions on how people can protect themselves online.

In Germany, new data retention act requires public telecommunication and Internet providers to retain various call detail records (CDRs). These include phone numbers, the date and time of phone calls and texts, the content of text messages, and, for mobile calls, the locations of call participants. In addition, Internet providers are required to store user metadata such as IP addresses, port numbers, and the date and time of Internet access.

Poland’s law expands government access to digital data and loosens restrictions on police spying. Collected metadata will be kept for up to 2 years. One doesn’t have to be an official suspect to be placed under surveillance for up to 18 months. In addition, the person being monitored will not be informed about it, compromising the protection of journalists’ sources and deterring potential whistleblowers.

On July 7, President Vladimir Putin of Russia signed into law several bills designed to help the government take measures against dissent online and demand unprecedented levels of data retention from the country’s telecom companies. For instance, the legislation warrants tougher sentencing for online commentary deemed as an incitement to hatred or a violation of human dignity. Such convictions now carry a minimum prison sentence of two years. The law requires service providers to monitor and store all calls, texts, chats and web browsing activity. The retained data can be accessed by several government agencies without a warrant.

The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act received the royal assent on November 29, opening up the gate for a disturbingly intrusive surveillance system. Among other things, the so-called Snoopers Charter gives the state the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and Internet use of all of the UK population. The entire browsing history of every resident of the UK will be stored for one year. Almost 50 police forces and government departments, ranging from the Metropolitan Police Service and GCHQ to the Food Standards Agency are authorized to access the data.

In the U.S., a new amendment to the Rule 41 of the US Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure quietly went into effect on December 1. It allows the FBI to secretly use malware to hack into thousands of computers with one warrant. There is no need to identify specific computers to be searched. That means FBI can hack into as many computers as they wish, whether their owners are suspected of some criminal activity or not.

New surveillance laws have also been passed and/or enacted in Belarus, China, Turkey, Ethiopia and elsewhere this year. For detailed information, visit our extensive coverage on those laws in our recent Privacy Review blog post.

Dangers of Surveillance States

Citizen control and surveillance, especially suspicions surveillance, whether physical or digital, has not proved to be an effective way to control criminal activity ­history tells us it has always turned out to be counter-productive, endangering lives and causing fear and insecurity.

For example, when the government opens a backdoor to citizen’s data, it means that this backdoor could potentially be used by anyone else, and can fall into the hands of hackers. Once the information is in the wrong hands, it can be used to steal people¹s identities and rob them of their bank accounts, for example. Data can also get misplaced, systems can crash and everyone can get endangered.

Solution

There are solutions to bypass some of these restrictive laws, the most reliable being a VPN service. A VPN sends your data through a securely encrypted tunnel before accessing the Internet ­ this protects any sensitive information about your location by hiding your IP address.

Connecting through a VPN tunnel hides your online activity from your Internet service provider (ISP). The only information visible to the ISP is that you are connected to a VPN server, while all other information is encrypted by the VPN¹s protocol. This prevents ISPs from collecting potentially sensitive data and passing it onto any third parties.

It¹s also important to use a VPN service that does not store activity records to ensure your data is not logged and forwarded to any agencies. NordVPN has a strict no-log policy and could not supply any information on your online activities even if requested.

Besides a VPNs, it’s also crucial to use anti-spyware software, to make sure to use a Firewall, not to install unapproved programs on the computer that might contain bugs, and to be generally vigilant about the kind of information one shares and opens online.

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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By 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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How load-shedding is killing our cellphone signals

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Extensive load-shedding, combined with the theft of cell tower backup batteries and copper wire, is placing a massive strain on mobile network providers.

MTN says the majority of MTN’S sites have been equipped with battery backup systems to ensure there is enough power on site to run the system for several hours when local power goes out and the mains go down. 

“With power outages on the rise, these back-up systems become imperative to keeping South Africa connected and MTN has invested heavily in generators and backup batteries to maintain communication for customers, despite the lack of electrical power,” the operator said in a statement today.

However, according to Jacqui O’Sullivan, Executive: Corporate Affairs, at MTN SA, “The high frequency of the cycles of load shedding have meant batteries were unable to fully recharge. They generally have a capacity of six to 12 hours, depending on the site category, and require 12 to 18 hours to recharge.”

An additional challenge is that criminals and criminal syndicates are placing networks across the country at risk. Batteries, which can cost R28 000 per battery and upwards, are sought after on black markets – especially in neighbouring countries. 

“Although MTN has improved security and is making strides in limiting instances of theft and vandalism with the assistance of the police, the increase in power outages has made this issue even more pressing,” says O’Sullivan.

Ernest Paul, General Manager: Network Operations at SA’s leading network provider MTN, says the brazen theft of batteries is an industry-wide problem and will require a broader initiative driven by communities, the private sector, police and prosecutors to bring it to a halt.

“Apart from the cost of replacing the stolen batteries and upgrading the broken infrastructure, communities suffer as the network degrades without the back-up power. This is due to the fact that any coverage gaps need to be filled. The situation is even more dire with the rolling power cuts expected due to Eskom load shedding.”

Loss of services and network quality can range from a 2-5km radius to 15km on some sites and affect 5,000 to 20,000 people. On hub sites, network coverage to entire suburbs and regions can be lost.

Click here to read more about efforts to combat copper theft.

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