Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage
An Iranian-government aligned group has tried to steal personal information and passwords of notable individuals across Europe and the US through 2021
Iran set to continue on the same cyber-espionage path despite the exposure of their tactics, expert tells Arab News
Updated 16 October 2021
Tech giant Google has exposed how Iranian-backed groups attempt to use its platforms to carry out espionage on behalf of the government in Tehran.
In a blog post released on Thursday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group exposed the work of APT35, a shady hacking group that Google said is linked to the Iranian government.
Ajax Bash, of TAG, said: “This is the one of the groups we disrupted during the 2020 US election cycle for its targeting of campaign staffers. For years, this group has hijacked accounts, deployed malware, and used novel techniques to conduct espionage aligned with the interests of the Iranian government.”
In one instance, he said, Iranian hackers targeted lecturers from a British university — the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London — and impersonated them in an attempt to trick others in the academic community into divulging their personal information and passwords. This form of cyber espionage is called credential phishing.
“APT35 has relied on this technique since 2017 — targeting high-value accounts in government, academia, journalism, NGOs, foreign policy, and national security,” said Bash.
“Credential phishing through a compromised website demonstrates these attackers will go to great lengths to appear legitimate — as they know it’s difficult for users to detect this kind of attack.
“One of the most notable characteristics of APT35 is their impersonation of conference officials to conduct phishing attacks,” said Bash. He explained that Iranian-backed operatives impersonated officials from the Munich Security Conference and an Italian think-tank to steal passwords and information.
Amin Sabeti, the founder of Digital Impact Lab and an Iran-focused cyber security professional, told Arab News that Google’s blog exposes how Iran continues to build on its national cyber security strategy.
“This report shows again that Iranian state-backed hackers are very good in social engineering and they have improved their technique,” he said.
“For example, using a legitimate website to convince the target to enter the credential details of their online account is something new that we didn’t see a few years ago.”
Sabeti also said that, despite Google unmasking Iran’s cyber-espionage activity, it is unlikely that they will change their strategy entirely.
“I think we will see the same techniques but with new ideas.”
Google’s Bash said: “We warn users when we suspect a government-backed threat like APT35 is targeting them. Thousands of these warnings are sent every month, even in cases where the corresponding attack is blocked.
“Threat Analysis Group will continue to identify bad actors and share relevant information with others in the industry, with the goal of bringing awareness to these issues, protecting you and fighting bad actors to prevent future attacks.”
It is a form of cyber attack in which hackers impersonate a reputable entity or person to steal user ID or email addresses and password combinations, then use the victim's credentials to carry out attacks on other targets.
Russia says Twitter mobile slowdown to remain until all banned content is removed, fines Google
Russia will continue slowing down the speed of Twitter on mobile devices until all content deemed illegal is deleted
Russia also fined Google 3 million roubles on Monday for not deleting content that it deemed illegal
Updated 29 November 2021
MOSCOW: Russia will continue slowing down the speed of Twitter on mobile devices until all content deemed illegal is deleted, state communications regulator Roskomnadzor told Reuters, as Moscow continues to make demands of Big Tech.
Russian authorities have taken steps recently to regulate technology giants more closely by imposing small fines for content violations, while also seeking to force foreign companies to have official representation in Russia and store Russians’ personal data on its territory.
Twitter has been subjected to a punitive slowdown in Russia since March for posts containing child pornography, drug abuse information or calls for minors to commit suicide, Roskomnadzor has said.
Twitter, which did not immediately comment on Monday, denies allowing its platform to be used to promote illegal behavior. It says it has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation and prohibits the promotion of suicide or self-harm.
Videos and photos are noticeably slower to load on mobile devices, but Roskomnadzor eased speed restrictions on fixed networks in May.
Roskomnadzor said Twitter, which it has fined a total of 38.4 million roubles this year, has systematically ignored requests to remove banned material since 2014, but has taken down more than 90 percent of illegal posts.
“As of now, 761 undeleted posts remain,” Roskomnadzor said in response to Reuters questions. “The condition for lifting the access restriction on mobile devices is that Twitter completely removes banned materials detected by Roskomnadzor.”
The regulator has said it will seek fines on the annual turnover of Alphabet’s Google and Facebook in Russia for repeated legal violations, threats the two companies did not comment on at the time.
“We also reiterate that the social network Twitter has been repeatedly found guilty by a Russian court of committing administrative offenses,” Roskomnadzor said.
Russia has also fined Alphabet Inc.'s Google 3 million roubles on Monday for not deleting content that it deemed illegal, part of a wider dispute between Russia and the US tech giant.
Russia in October threatened to fine Google a percentage of its annual Russian turnover for repeatedly failing to delete banned content on its search engine and YouTube, in Moscow's strongest move yet to rein in foreign tech firms.
Google, which last month said it had paid more than 32 million roubles in fines, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Britain open to law to combat rise in online scams, says financial minister
Britain is open to legislating a law to stop an explosion in scam adverts online, says financial services minister
Updated 29 November 2021
LONDON: Britain is open to legislating to stop an explosion in scam adverts online being a significant source of fraud, financial services minister John Glen has told lawmakers.
Victims’ groups and campaigners have called for fraudulent adverts to be incorporated in the government’s planned Online Safety Bill, which currently only covers user-generated content.
“We are very sympathetic to that,” Glen told the Treasury Select Committee. “This is a massive problem. This is a significant opportunity in the absence of a better solution.”
A British record of 754 million pounds ($1 billion) was stolen in the first six months of this year, up 30 percent from the same period in 2020, according to data from banking industry body UK Finance, and up more than 60 percent from 2017, when it began compiling the figures.
Several government departments are involved in trying to stop online scams, raising concerns among committee members that solutions are too slow to emerge.
“You’re being very good at describing how difficult it all is, but what are you actually going to be doing about it?” said lawmaker Angela Eagle.
Glen said the finance ministry was liaising with the digital, culture, media and sport ministry (DCMS) — which is also looking at the problem of online scams — to try and find the best solution.
The Treasury committee has previously told representatives from Facebook, Google, Amazon and eBay they needed to do more to combat fraud.
Cybersecurity experts and banks have said Britain has become a global target for fraud attacks due to relatively light policing of fraud-related crime, a super-fast payments infrastructure and use of the world’s most widely used language English.
“This is an absolute priority. I am not satisfied where we are on this,” Glen said, adding that prevention needs to be a big part of the response.
“The challenge is how can we make effective intervention that is really going to bear down on this,” Glen said.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey steps down and hands reins to technology chief Agrawal
Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, steps down and hands over his role to CTO Parag Agrawal
Dorsey said he chose to step down due to the strength of Agrawal’s leadership and his confidence in the “ambition and potential” of Twitter’s employees
Updated 29 November 2021
LONDON: Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey is stepping down from his role and Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal will now lead the company, the social networking site announced on Monday.
The appointment of Agrawal, a 10-year veteran of Twitter, marks an endorsement of a strategy the company previously laid out to double its annual revenue by 2023 and also indicates an increasing focus on Twitter’s long-term ambition to rebuild how social media companies operate.
Dorsey, who co-founded Twitter in 2006, is leaving after overseeing the launch of new ways to create content through newsletters or audio conversations while simultaneously serving as CEO of his payments processing company Square Inc.
He also navigated the tumultuous years of US President Donald Trump’s administration before banning the Republican from the platform after the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
The CEO change is effective immediately and Dorsey will remain on the board until his term expires at the 2022 annual shareholder meeting, the company said.
In an email to employees on Monday, Dorsey said he chose to step down due to the strength of Agrawal’s leadership, the naming of Salesforce Chief Operating Officer Bret Taylor as the new chairman of the board and his confidence in the “ambition and potential” of Twitter’s employees.
“I’m really sad ... yet really happy,” he wrote. “There aren’t many companies that get to this level,” adding that his move to step down “was my decision and I own it.”
“We recently updated our strategy to hit ambitious goals, and I believe that strategy to be bold and right,” Agrawal said in an email to employees. “But our critical challenge is how we work to execute against it and deliver results.”
Shares of Twitter surged 9 percent in early trading following the news, which was first reported by CNBC, before paring those gains in the afternoon. Shares of Square were flat in afternoon trading.
Over the past year, Twitter has fought to end years-long criticism that it has been slow to introduce new features for its 211 million daily users and was losing ground to social media rivals like Instagram and TikTok.
Under Dorsey’s leadership, Twitter acquired email newsletter service Revue and launched Spaces, a feature that lets users host or listen to live audio conversations.
The company also rolled out advertising improvements to help brands find Twitter users likely to be interested in their product, a key component of the company’s goal to double annual revenue by 2023.
However, shares of Twitter have slumped in recent months, adding pressure on Dorsey to end his unusual arrangement of being CEO of two companies.
In early 2020, Dorsey faced calls from Elliott Management Corp. to step down, after the hedge fund argued that he was paying too little attention to Twitter while also running Square Inc.
Dorsey fended off the pressure by giving Elliott and its ally, buyout firm Silver Lake Partners, seats on Twitter’s board.
Dorsey will now focus on leading Square and other pursuits such as philanthropy, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The company’s board has been preparing for Dorsey’s departure since last year, the source said.
Frankly Speaking: ‘The future of retail is both physical and digital – phygital’, says MAF CEO Alain Bejjani
Head of conglomerate appears on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with business people and policymakers
Bejjani gives his opinion on the economies of Saudi Arabia and UAE, whose resilience is being tested by the pandemic
Updated 29 November 2021
DUBAI: Business in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is “buzzing,” Alain Bejjani, chief executive officer of the Majid Al Futtaim diversified conglomerate, told Arab News, even as the resilience of their economies is being tested by the pandemic’s unexpected twists and turns.
He gave his opinion on the state of recovery from last year’s coronavirus lockdowns on Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with leading business people and policymakers in the Middle East and the world.
“Saudi Arabia (has shown) great resilience during the pandemic, but actually Saudi Arabian measures (to halt the spread of the virus) were quite different from the ones that you have seen in the other markets. I’ve been there in the past few months more than three times and you (can) see that it’s buzzing. It’s coming back,” Bejjani said.
“The UAE had remarkable resilience in 2020 and now is buzzing across the board. We’ve had an excellent second half of the year, especially the third quarter and the fourth quarter that we are in, and basically things are off to a very good start in 2022.”
Business in Egypt is also on a recovery path, he said.
Bejjani has been at the helm of MAF since 2015, consolidating the group’s position as one of the leading retail, hospitality and leisure groups in the Middle East. MAF is well known by consumers throughout the region for its Carrefour supermarkets, its gigantic shopping malls and its Vox Cinemas chain.
In the course of a wide-ranging discussion, Bejjani also spoke about the way the pandemic had changed MAF, his plans to give cinema a big boost in the Middle East, and the sustainability of MAF’s businesses, which include a ski-slope in Dubai and another one — set to be the biggest in the world — in the under-construction Mall of Saudi in Riyadh.
On the pace of the post-pandemic economic recovery, Bejjani explained that there could be a financial “hit” to MAF this year, because consumption patterns had changed from online back to in-person retailing.
“So, 2021 was difficult and not 2020. Last year was a difficult year to be able to fulfill and to be able to serve the customers in the safety of their homes, and navigate through the very strict restrictions that we had to deal with because of the pandemic.
“But in 2021 when we had less restrictions or no restrictions, people could go back to stores, the actual consumption changed because people were consuming less. They were not at home anymore as much as they were,” he said.
He said that a full recovery across the board might not come until 2024, adding: “We are in multi-industries and some industries have recovered while others have not yet recovered. So, when you look at our overall results, they are affected by the ones that haven’t recovered yet.”
Elaborating on the topic, Bejjani said: “For example, the cinema business and the L&E (leisure and entertainment) business — this is a business that’s recovering slower than others and is now actually affected by supply-chain issues.
“When you look at the cinema business, this is a business that was really affected in 2021 not only by the limitations on occupancy, but also by the fact of the unavailability of movies because of production delays and all the supply-chain issues that were triggered by the pandemic.”
In Saudi Arabia, where MAF has been expanding rapidly over the past five years, growth was being spurred by the reform strategy of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy, according to Bejjani.
“What’s happened in Saudi Arabia in the past five years is a blessing. Everyone was dreaming to have Saudi Arabia open up; to have Saudi Arabia come back; to actually become a vibrant and even more vibrant economy, a more inclusive economy; to get women back into the workforce and also into a role in society; to get entertainment back into the Kingdom,” he said.
MAF’s most prestigious project to date in the Kingdom is the Mall of Saudi, a $4.3 billion retail and leisure complex under construction in north Riyadh, due to open in 2025. Bejjani is confident that “mall culture” will overcome the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, but that the lockdowns will change the nature of the business in significant ways.
“This is, of course, for us a very important, substantial investment and a very strategic project. We’re doing it because we really believe in the future of retail and we really believe that the future of retail is both physical and digital. There is this new word now that’s coined, it’s called ‘phygital,’ and we are seeing that more and more.
“Malls are not only spaces where you actually transact, where you actually shop for something. It’s a place where people come together. It’s a place where people meet. It’s a place where friends and family spend time and create great moments together. Of course they shop, dine or consume entertainment, but also build bonds. This is what malls’ new roles are,” he said.
The Mall of Saudi will be home to the biggest ski-slope and snow dome in the world. Some environmentalists have questioned the building of gigantic indoor snow-park facilities in the Middle East, especially as concerns grow about climate change.
But Bejjani is adamant that the new ski center in Riyadh will comply with the strictest environmental and energy regulations, like Ski Dubai in the UAE does. “There is a lot of misconception around indoor ski slopes,” he said.
“If you look at Mall of the Emirates’ Ski Dubai or the one that you’re going to be having in our Riyadh project, these are actually LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified assets.
“It actually has been improving quite a lot. We’ve been putting a lot of technology and investment in order to make it as sustainable as possible. So, when you look at the actual slope, it is within a fridge that preserves heat and preserves cold, so minimizes the heat going out and preserves cold inside. And we have a lot of technology to make sure that we actually use the least electricity possible and generate and have the lowest possible carbon footprint.”
One part of the business set for big growth is the Vox Cinemas chain, which pursued an aggressive roll-out of new venues after the ban on cinemas in Saudi Arabia was lifted in 2018, only to be shut later by the pandemic. Bejjani says he is confident Vox can win business back from the at-home streaming services like Netflix that did so well during the lockdowns.
“People love the experience. Cinema is an experience that you share with others and there is nothing like the magic of being in a theater and people laughing together and living those emotions together,” he said.
Consumers had “maxxed out” on Netflix during the lockdown phase, he added.
One challenge MAF is planning to confront head on is the lack of new content, and specifically regional content, in the Middle East movie industry. Shutdowns in Hollywood and Bollywood studios during the pandemic meant a shortage of new material for movie-goers.
“Saudi Arabia is a fantastic market for local content, whether it’s Arabic content, whether it’s Khaliji or Egyptian content, and this is where we need and we are driving a lot of effort to make sure that we enable that local content much more,” he said.
Vox is sponsoring the forthcoming Red Sea Film Festival as a way to demonstrate its commitment to creating a regional production and distribution network to raise the level of local content in cinema.
“We have a huge market with a lot of young and not-so-young cultural-product consumers that want local content,” Bejjani said. “This is how we can contribute to the rebirth of our civilization, and the rebirth of the cultural life in our part of the world.”
New Zealand PM says Facebook, others must do more against online hate
New Zealand PM said tech giants and world leaders needed to do “much more” to stamp out violent extremism and radicalization online
Updated 26 November 2021
LONDON: Tech giants like Meta’s Facebook and world leaders needed to do “much more” to stamp out violent extremism and radicalization online, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday.
Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a global initiative to end online hate in 2019 after a white supremacist killed 51 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch while live-streaming his rampage on Facebook.
This Christchurch Call initiative has been supported by more than 50 countries, international organizations and tech firms, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft.
Ardern said on Friday the initiative had been successful in its first aim of establishing a crisis protocol, including a 24/7 network between platforms to quickly remove content, in response to events like those in Christchurch.
“We have had real world stress-testing of those systems and they have worked very effectively,” Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.
“I am confident that we are operating more effectively than we have before,” she added. “The next challenge though, is to go further again.”
Asked what tech companies should be doing, Ardern replied: “much more.”
Ardern said the next step was to focus on prevention, looking at how people are finding or coming across hateful or terror-motivating content online and perhaps becoming radicalized.
“That’s where we are really interested in the ongoing work around algorithms and the role that we can all play to ensure that online platforms don’t become a place of radicalization,” she said.
A Christchurch Call conference earlier this year was attended by the United States and Britain.