Category Archives: Tech

Archaic but widely used crypto cipher allows NSA to decode most cell calls

The National Security Agency can easily defeat the world’s most widely used cellphone encryption, a capability that means the agency can decode most of the billions of calls and texts that travel over public airwaves each day, according to published report citing documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

The NSA “can process encrypted A5/1″ calls even when agents don’t have the underlying cryptographic key, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing this top-secret document provided by former NSA contractor Snowden. A5/1 is an encryption cipher developed in the 1980s that researchers have repeatedly cracked for more than a decade. It remains widely used to encrypt older, 2G cellphone calls. Newer phones can still use A5/1, even when showing they’re connected to 3G or 4G networks.

In the past five years, cracking A5/1 has grown increasingly easier and less costly. In 2010 researchers unveiled a technique that cost about $650 and relied on open-source software and off-the-shelf hardware. Next-generation spy devices sold to militaries and law-enforcement groups have long marketed the ability to eavesdrop on A5/1-protected calls, too. Despite the growing susceptibility of A5/1, it remains widely used, Karsten Nohl, chief scientist at Security Research Labs in Berlin, told The Washington Post. Reporters Craig Timberg and Ashkan Soltani explained:

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British Library sticks 1 million pics on Flickr, asks for help making them useful

In 2008, the British Library, in partnership with Microsoft, embarked on a project to digitize thousands of out-of-copyright books from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Included within those books were maps, diagrams, illustrations, photographs, and more. The Library has uploaded more than a million of them onto Flickr and released them into the public domain. It’s now asking for help.

Though the library knows which book each image is taken from, its knowledge largely ends there. While some images have useful titles, many do not, so the majority of the million picture collection is uncatalogued, its subject matter unknown.

Next year, it plans to launch a crowdsourced application to fill the gap, to enable humans to describe the images. This information will then be used to train an automated classifier that will be run against the entire corpus.

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Valve’s SteamOS is ready to download — only Linux vets are encouraged to apply

Just as promised, Valve has made its first release of SteamOS available for downloads at the same time it ships out prototype Steam Machines to 300 beta testers. Based on the Debian 7.1 flavor of Linux, SteamOS is a platform purpose built for playing …

Microsoft joins FIDO group hoping to replace passwords with public key cryptography

Microsoft has joined the board of directors of the FIDO (“Fast IDentity Online”) Alliance, an industry consortium that is attempting to create a set of protocols to enable consistent, secure, passwordless access to Web-based applications. Other members include Google, BlackBerry, PayPal, Lenovo, and MasterCard.

The problems with passwords are well-known. They’re poorly chosen, regularly stolen, and routinely reused across sites, meaning that a compromise of one account can lead to compromises of many others.

FIDO hopes to replace passwords with a system built around public key cryptography. To register with a FIDO site, you won’t enter a password into the site. Instead, hitting register will alert your authentication devices—typically an app on your smartphone—of the attempt to register. If that attempt is approved (for example, by using a registered fingerprint or entering a PIN), the device will generate a public/private key pair. The public key will be sent to the online service; the private key will be retained on the authentication device.

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November sales data shows a worrying lack of momentum for the Wii U

Last night’s release of November US console sales data by tracking firm NPD gave both Sony and Microsoft something to crow about in the largest single market for video games. Microsoft was able to claim the mantle of fastest-selling new system, with 909,000 US sales between its November 22 launch and the end of the month. Sony was able to brag that the PS4 was the top-selling system for the month overall, but the company hasn’t released raw sales figures, suggesting it might not have beaten Microsoft’s US sales numbers by an overwhelming amount in November.

The most interesting hardware number to come out of the report, though, came from Nintendo. The company said Wii U sales increased by more than 340 percent over the month before. That sounds impressive, until you look back at the leaked data from October and realize the Wii U only sold between 50,000 and 60,000 units that month (lining up with reported September sales of 55,500 units). That means Nintendo sold roughly between 220,000 and 260,000 Wii U systems in November.

That would be a decent raw sales number in the summer doldrums or in the post-holiday lull at the beginning of the year. For performance during the start of the explosive holiday season, though, 250,000 sales isn’t too inspiring, especially when the Wii U has had a year to theoretically entrench itself against upstart competition (an early launch strategy that worked for the PS2 and Xbox 360, to some extent). The Wii U’s November sales look even worse when you realize that the system is poised to be one of the few systems that actually performs worse in its second holiday season than its first, which has historically been a very bad sign for a system’s long-term success.

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Microsoft set to launch first original programming for Xbox One in early 2014

Microsoft hopes its first wave of original TV programming will be out early next year, the company’s president of entertainment and digital, Nancy Tellem tells Variety. At the latest, Redmond is hoping to have its original content out by the second …

Sprint wants to buy T-Mobile and leave US with just three major carriers

Masayoshi Son (left), poses with a Storm Trooper at Sprint owner SoftBank’s launch of the iPhone 3GS in 2009.

Sprint is “working toward a possible bid for rival T-Mobile” but is first examining regulatory concerns that could prevent such a merger, the Wall Street Journal reported today.

A merger would leave the US cellular market with only three major carriers, although a combined Sprint/T-Mobile would perhaps be a more formidable opponent to market leaders AT&T and Verizon Wireless. AT&T attempted to buy T-Mobile, but it dropped those plans in December 2011 after opposition from the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Sprint hasn’t made a final decision on a bid, but it could happen in the first half of 2014 and be worth more than $20 billion “depending on the size of any stake in T-Mobile that Sprint tries to buy,” the Journal reported. “But it would likely face tough opposition from antitrust authorities, who worry consumers could suffer without a fourth national competitor to keep a check on prices,” the report said. AT&T’s takeover bid for T-Mobile would have been $39 billion.The Journal‘s sources indicate that Sprint is wary of wasting time on a deal that might not come to fruition, but the company’s owner is leading the charge. “Driving the current effort is SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son, an aggressive acquirer who bought control of Sprint earlier this year and has made no secret of his desire to grow in the US via further deals,” the Journal wrote.

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Moto X Touchless Control update lets you speak your unlock code

You no longer have to give up some of the Moto X’s voice commands if you want to rely on security codes. An update to the smartphone’s Touchless Control app lets you speak a PIN code to unlock the device; as long as you’re not worried about …

Report: NSA mulls Snowden amnesty (but it probably won’t happen)

Aurich Lawson / The Guardian

According to an interview on 60 Minutes scheduled for broadcast this coming Sunday, a top National Security Agency (NSA) official says that some in the government are considering giving amnesty to Edward Snowden in exchange for the return of all of the documents that he exfiltrated from the NSA.

According to CBS News, whose parent company produces 60 Minutes, NSA official Rick Ledgett told the news program that “it’s worth having a conversation about” possible amnesty for Snowden. Ledgett is in charge of the NSA’s unauthorized leak task force to investigate the Snowden leaks.

“I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high,” he added. “It would be more than just an assertion on his part.”

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Engadget Podcast 372 – 12.12.13

It’s that time between Black Friday and CES when the news cycle becomes a snoozefest, but your intrepid host Brian Heater sallies forth into the abyss along with Terrence O’Brien and Sarah Silbert to bring you this week’s tech tidbits. Led Zeppelin …