Wikileaks and the CIA’s hacking program

WikiLeaks has released what it says are thousands of documents describing internal CIA discussions on hacking techniques used to circumvent security on electronic devices for spying.

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Here are some questions and answers:

Q: Are the documents authentic?

A: It appears at least some are real. While the CIA has declined to comment, independent cyber security experts and former intelligence agency employees who have looked through them say that they appear to be authentic, citing code words used to describe CIA hacking programs.

Q: What did we learn about the CIA’s hacking program?

A. WikiLeaks published documents that it says describe CIA tools for hacking into devices including mobile phones, computers and smart televisions.

Q: How can you hack a TV?

A: WikiLeaks said it identified a project known as Weeping Angel where US and British intelligence agencies developed ways to take over Samsung smart TVs equipped with microphones, forcing them to record conversations when the device appeared to be turned off. Experts have long said smart TVs and other internet-connected devices can be exploited to monitor a target.

Q: Are these revelations new?

A: While the specific details are new, it is well known in the cyber security community that intelligence agencies are constantly trying to leverage flaws in technology products to conduct espionage.

Q: The documents suggest that the CIA can access information in encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal. I thought they were safe from even government spying?

A: No system is perfect. The documents describe ways to get information in those apps on Android devices, but only after gaining full control of those phones.

Q: Are iPhones also vulnerable?

A: The documents discuss ways to get into iPhones as well. One appeared to show a list of Apple iOS security flaws purchased by US. intelligence agencies so they could gain access to those devices.

Q: Is this as big as the leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden?

A: The Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA was secretly collecting US call metadata on ordinary Americans. The materials released by WikiLeaks on Tuesday did not appear to reveal the existence of unknown any unknown programs. Instead they supplied details on how US intelligence agencies work to discover and exploit security flaws to conduct espionage.

Q: How did WikiLeaks get the information?

A: Unclear. Someone inside the agency may have leaked the information. Or, someone outside may have figured out a way to steal it.

Debate over oil and gas taxes heats up

The Turnbull government is facing pressure from the oil and gas industry not to push ahead with changes to reap billions of dollars in tax revenue from the fast-growing LNG industry.

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Revenues from the 40 per cent petroleum resource rent tax (PRRT) levied on profits generated from petroleum commodities had halved since 2012/13, while crude oil excise revenues have more than halved.

Treasurer Scott Morrison has asked former Treasury official Michael Callaghan to report by April – just weeks before the federal budget – on ways to ensure the taxes are still operating as they were originally intended and determine why there has been a revenue dive.

Mr Morrison says the review is about improving the integrity of the tax system and ensuring companies are paying the right amount of tax on their Australian activities.

The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association said in its submission to the Callaghan review it does not believe there is a case for any change to the PRRT.

“Any changes that lead to increased imposts under the resource taxation system will damage the ability of Australia to attract projects and thereby diminish the capacity to create sustainable taxation revenue streams for future generations,” the association said.

But Mr Callaghan, who received 73 submissions, has also been presented with evidence Australian taxpayers are set to be severely short-changed by multinational firms such as Chevron, Shell, Inpex, ExxonMobil and Total.

The Tax Justice Network says by 2021 Australia’s LNG exports will exceed those of Qatar.

But the PRRT will not generate any revenues for decades, while Qatar collects $26.6 billion in LNG royalties.

The network has proposed extending the 10 per cent commonwealth royalty to all current and future offshore oil and gas projects that are otherwise only subject to the PRRT.

Five large LNG offshore projects are only subject to the PRRT, unlike all other gas projects in Australia.

All other oil and gas projects in Australia are subject to state or commonwealth royalties of 10 per cent or higher plus the PRRT.

It’s estimated extending the commonwealth royalty regime to the five LNG projects could generate between $30 billion and $45 billion over three decades.

A Reserve Bank analysis published in 2015 concluded the economic benefits to Australia from the LNG boom would be muted by “low employment intensity of LNG production, the high level of foreign ownership and, in the near term, the use of deductions on taxation payments”.

The ACTU says it’s vital that companies earning significant profits from natural resources pay their fair share of tax.

AAP understands Labor is adopting a wait and see approach, despite strong union support for change.

It is also understood there are concerns within government that higher taxes on gas in the May budget could send mixed messages as the prime minister talks up his energy security credentials.

CUA expects lending to lift in second half

Credit union CUA has lifted first-half profit more than 10 per cent and expects a strong second half as the major banks push up borrowing rates amid rising funding costs.

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CUA’s made a net profit of $31.1 million for the six months to December 31 as a strong performance from its health insurance business offset weakness from its home loan business.

Chief executive Rob Goudswaard said CUA experienced a slowdown in lending activity during June to September as it held its interest rates steady while other banks cut theirs.

“We didn’t play in that price game so the volume for us was not there during the first half,” Mr Goudswaard told AAP.

But, he said, the cost of borrowing had increased since Donald Trump won the US presidency in November prompting the major banks to lift key interest rates.

“Now, all of a sudden, we are more attractive to people, and since November we have experienced strong interest in our lending products and that’s still happening now.

“Lending (activity) is stronger for us than what we would normally have around this time of the year.”

Mr Goudswaard said the recent increase in new lending would boost CUA’s second half performance.

However, low interest rates and strong competition in the home loans market and in attracting member deposits would continue to put pressure on CUA’s margins.

The credit union added 5,012 new members in the first half, taking the total to 444,725.

CUA Health performed strongly, posting a first-half profit of $3.37 million while the credit union’s core banking business profit fell 3.8 per cent to $29.7 million on the back of slowdown in lending activity.

Meanwhile, Mutual Marketplace, CUA’s new joint venture with People’s Choice Credit Union providing procurement and accounts payable services, is due to launch in April.

Norman on cusp of Origin shot: Jennings

Not that Queensland need any more help in State of Origin but this season is the one Corey Norman gets a real shot at his Maroons debut.

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That’s the opinion of NSW star Michael Jennings, who is full of praise for the round-one NRL performance of his Parramatta teammate, his first outing since an eight-game suspension last year.

“He’s come back firing,” Jennings said after Eels training on Wednesday.

“He played really well on the weekend. Look, I think the main thing is that he’s taken on that leadership role. He’s fixed up all his off-field issues and looking good.”

Norman flirted with Dally M-winning form in a hot start for the Eels last year before his season imploded as a result of a series of off-field incidents.

His failure to finish what was a hellish year for the Eels came down to a two-month ban for a drug possession conviction after a police warning for consorting with criminals and his role in the release of a sex tape.

However Jennings says Norman has turned a corner and is set for another breakout campaign where he comes into calculations as an Origin bolter.

Longer term, another big year might also see him talked about among the candidates to fill the shoes of veteran playmaker Johnathan Thurston, who has stated his intention to retire from representative footy at the end of 2017.

“It’s pretty hard with the quality of players they have there,” Jennings said.

“(But) I think this year he should get a mention in that Queensland side. If he keeps performing the way he’s been performing, I have no doubt he should get a mention in that team.”

Centre Brad Takairangi said the Eels halfback came back with a point to prove in round one, where he scored a try and set up another in a virtuoso outing against Manly.

“He was filthy last year not being able to help the boys and contribute as much as he wanted to. He started well on the weekend and hopefully he can keep doing it,” Takairangi said.

“Obviously he missed being out there with the boys. I don’t think he’s missed that much footy over a long period of time. He’s our leader out on the field, our main general.”

Aphrodisiac perfumes likely fake: study

On Wednesday, Australian researchers added fuel to the fire by stating that two naturally occurring steroids widely thought to be appeal-boosting human pheromones have no impact on “mate perception”.

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The chemicals — estratetraenol (EST) or androstadienone (AND) — are already a component of perfumes that promise to leave the opposite sex weak at the knees.

But the titillating effect may be all in the mind, researchers wrote in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

“AND and EST are unlikely to be human pheromones,” said a research quartet from the University of Western Australia.

They tested whether those chemicals — the lead contenders for human pheromone status — had any effect on 94 heterosexual men and women in two lab experiments.

In the first stage, participants were asked to indicate whether a “gender neutral” face, created by computer-fusing photos of people from both sexes, belonged to a man or a woman.

In the second, they had to rate faces for attractiveness, and whether they thought the person had an adulterous nature or not — part of what makes up “mate perception”.

Being exposed to either AND or EST during the experiments made no difference to the participants’ choices as they would have done if they truly were pheromones, the researchers found.

In previous research, men and women reported that a person’s scent affected their sexual interest, and women often say they place more importance on a man’s smell than his looks.

Yet no human sex pheromones have been identified with any certainty, and previous studies on AND and EST’s aphrodisiac effects have yielded contradictory findings.

Despite a lack of scientific proof, AND is marketed as a male pheromone, and EST a female one — often in pricey perfumes.

“We recommend a return to first principles in the search for human pheromones,” said the team — referring to the fundamental assumptions on which any theory is based.

They called for trials run by scientists rather than perfume labs in the quest for actual human pheromones.

Russia rates Disney’s ‘Beauty and Beast’ 16+ for ‘gay moment’

A spokesman for the culture ministry said the “film is coming out with a 16+ age certificate,” RIA Novosti news agency reported.

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The film’s director Bill Condon has revealed that it contains Disney’s “first exclusively gay moment”, although some critics have said this was less than overwhelming.

Disney had previously announced the film as a 6+ in its promotional campaign for Russia, where it is due to come out March 16.

Walt Disney Company Russia & CIS confirmed the 16+ age rating in a statement sent to AFP. A spokeswoman said the company would not make any  comment.

National lawmaker Vitaly Milonov on Saturday asked Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to check the film for breaches of a controversial law that bans “gay propaganda” to minors.

Milonov was one of the chief architects of the law that President Vladimir Putin signed in 2013 despite a storm of international condemnation.

Milonov said Tuesday he was pleased with the age restriction. He said it aims to impose “new European standards of tolerance so (children) think this is all the norm.”

In his letter to the culture minister, Milonov called the Disney film “blatant, shameless propaganda of sin and perverted sexual relationships.”

He called for it to be banned from cinemas if it was found to contain “elements of propaganda of homosexuality.”

Related

The law bans disseminating information that could interest minors in “non-traditional sexual relationships.” It has been used as a pretext to ban gay pride events.

With outspoken views, Milonov has attacked everything from Facebook to the Eurovision Song Contest and called for the creation of a morality police to fine people who violate “traditional values”.

Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 and only in 1999 lifted its classification as a mental illnesses. 

the news about the possible ban of beauty and the beast in russia was on this dutch news for children, they replied in an amazing way 💖 pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/b61dMqZOQU

— richelle (@joyfulbrooke) March 7, 2017

House prices not in a bubble: Westpac boss

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe may be losing sleep over house prices, but the head of one of the nation’s biggest banks doesn’t believe there’s a housing bubble in Sydney or Melbourne.

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Like federal Treasurer Scott Morrison, Westpac boss Brian Hartzer thinks the sharp rise in property valuations is due to supply constraints.

Facing a parliamentary committee in Canberra on Wednesday, Mr Hartzer says in his mind a housing bubble is when people believe prices only go up, start borrowing to buy a house and sell it within a year, only to buy a bigger property.

“That to me is the definition of a bubble, a credit-fuelled speculative bubble,” he told MPs.

“I don’t think that’s what’s happening in Sydney or Melbourne.”

The Westpac boss was the last big bank chief to appear in the latest parliamentary review of the big four banks.

During a hearing on Tuesday, Commonwealth Bank chief executive Ian Narev said he did not believe home buyers thought the market was overpriced.

He thought they were saying it was difficult to afford it, a view he shared.

The treasurer will make housing affordability a major focus of his May budget but says supply is a key factor, not just for first-time buyers, but for low-income families and renters more generally.

Mr Hartzer said what was happening in the nation’s two biggest cities is the consequence of severe supply constraints running into a significant step up in demand from foreign buyers.

“There has been a significant ramp-up in construction and a big chunk of that has probably been targeting overseas buyers whose desire for the nature of the property isn’t necessarily the quality local buyers would want,” he told MPs.

However, as a result of a crackdown in China on outflows of capital, a number of these developments where foreign buyers have put money down on an apartment are now having trouble settling.

“That is potentially creating a bit of a glut of supply which may or may not be what the local buyers want to buy and are taking a lot longer to clear.”

Mr Hartzer’s comments came after a recent warning by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of the potential danger facing the Australian economy from ballooning house prices.

The Paris-based organisation reiterated the warning in a new report on Tuesday, not just for Australia, but also for Canada, Sweden and the UK, which have all endured a similar housing experience.

“As past experience has shown, a rapid rise of house prices can be a precursor of an economic downturn,” it says.

How to stop your TV spying on you

The publication by WikiLeaks of documents it says are from the CIA’s secret hacking program describe tools that can turn a world of increasingly networked, camera- and microphone-equipped devices into eavesdroppers.

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Smart televisions and cars now have on-board computers and microphones, joining the ubiquitous smartphones, laptops and tablets that have had microphones and cameras as standard equipment for a decade. That the CIA has created tools to turn them into listening posts surprises no one in the security community.

Q: How worried should consumers be who have surrounded themselves with these devices?

A: Importantly, the intrusion tools highlighted by the leak do not appear to be instruments of mass surveillance. So, it’s not as if everyone’s TV or high-tech vehicle is at risk.

“These are tools that appear to be targeted at specific people’s (devices) by compromising the software on them – as opposed to tools that decrypt the encrypted traffic over the internet,” says Matt Blaze, University of Pennsylvania computer scientist.

“Q: Once devices are compromised they need to be internet-connected in order to share collected intelligence with spies. What can be done to stop that?

A: Not much if you don’t want to sacrifice the benefits of the device.

“Anything that is voice-activated or that has voice- and internet-connected functionality is susceptible to these types of attacks,” says Robert M Lee, a former US cyberwar operations officer.

That includes smart TVs and voice-controlled information devices like the Amazon Echo, which can read news, play music, close the garage door and turn up the thermostat.

To ensure a connected device can’t spy on you, unplug it from the grid and the internet and remove the batteries, if that’s possible. Or perhaps don’t buy it, especially if you don’t require the networked features.

Security experts have found flaws in devices – like WiFi-enabled dolls – with embedded microphones and cameras.

Q: I recently began using WhatsApp and Signal on my smartphone for voice and text communication because of their strong encryption. Can the exploits described in the WikiLeaks documents break them?

A: No. But exploits designed to infiltrate the operating system on your Android smartphone, iPhone, iPad or Windows-based computer can read your messages or listen in on conversations on the compromised device itself, though communications are encrypted in transit.

Q: I’m not a high-value target for intelligence agencies. But I still want to protect myself. How?

A: It may sound boring, but it’s vital: Keep all your operating systems patched and up-to-date, and don’t click links or open email attachments unless you are sure they are safe.

There will always be exploits of which antivirus companies are not aware until it’s too late. These are known as zero-day exploits because no patches are available and victims have zero time to prepare. The CIA, National Security Agency and plenty of other intelligence agencies purchase and develop them.

But they don’t come cheap. And most of us are hardly worth it.

State child abuse reporting lines clogged

State government child protection reporting systems are being clogged by thousands of reports that aren’t serious enough for them to act on, a commission has heard.

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NSW Department of Family Services secretary Michael Coutts-Trotter says the department received 120,000 calls last year that did not meet the “risk of significant harm” threshold.

“In effort terms, that’s about 100 child protection caseworkers working in intake, taking reports we don’t act on as a statutory agency,” he told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Wednesday.

Mr Coutts-Trotter said the department received 150,000 reports that met the threshold, in respect to 75,000 children last year.

The royal commission heard Queensland also had a similar problem with large volumes of calls.

“The effect of there being a large number of reports that don’t meet the threshold means… that children who are the subject of those allegations may receive less priority, attention, than otherwise,” Counsel assisting Gail Furness SC said.

“That’s the risk,” Mr Coutts Trotter replied.

The hearing has in part been investigating how the state, territory and Commonwealth governments have so far responded to the royal commission’s work.

It heard COAG had last year made a commitment to roll out reportable conduct schemes similar to NSW’s, which requires any abuse or assault of a child to be reported to an ombudsman, nationwide.

The scheme also includes audits of how employers respond to allegations.

Reportable conduct arrangements are about to come into force in Victoria and ACT, the royal commission heard.

Weight discrimination prevents exercise

People who think they are discriminated against because of their weight are less likely to exercise than those who do not, a new British study suggests.

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Experts examined information on more than 5400 men and women who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

People who took part in the study reported experiences of weight discrimination in everyday life and frequency of light, moderate and vigorous physical activities.

Almost five per cent of participants reported facing stigma because of their weight.

The researchers, led by a team at University College London, found that among participants who reported weight discrimination, 10.3 per cent reported no regular physical activity and 18.3 per cent reported only light activity at least once a week.

Overall, they found that perceived weight discrimination was associated with almost 60 per cent higher odds of being inactive.

And those who had been stigmatised because of their weight were also 30 per cent less likely to engage in moderate or vigorous activity at least once a week.

“Individuals who perceive discrimination may be more self-conscious about exercising in front of people for fear that it might attract undesirable attention,” the report’s authors wrote.

“Internalisation of weight bias may also result in a loss of self-efficacy and motivation to achieve goals, leaving people wondering why they should bother trying to be active.”

The authors point out that such discrimination can have “harmful consequences” to a person’s emotional well-being.

There is some evidence that people who have suffered discrimination because of their weight are more likely to increase intake of high-fat and high-calorie foods, decrease dietary quality and limit physical activity, they added.