July 2, 2020

Spyware, Bossware, and Other Invasive Software Plaguing our Lives Today

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Episode Details

In this week’s episode, we talk about the software we use every day for entertainment, productivity, socialization, and more. Starting off the TikTok’s fall from grace with its recent turmoil surrounding its vague origins and invasiveness on mobile phones. Sweeping bans of Chinese apps from the Indian Government.

Remote work introducing new forms of “bossware”, or alternative invasive spyware that comes gift wrapped with a bow on top, and is branded and sold as productivity-enhancing software for employers. 

And last but not least, I’ll touch a more polarizing topic, one that touches on data transparency, freedom of speech, and the internet as a tool for information. As the keys for the renowned wiki leaks platform trades hands with a new group ready to take the lead.

Welcome to Future Lens Today.

Apple Suddenly Catches TikTok Secretly Spying On Millions Of iPhone Users

Apple is currently hard at work on a fix for a serious problem in iOS 14, a problem that has allowed apps to secretly access the clipboard on users’ devices. Once the new OS is released, users will be warned whenever an app reads the last thing copied to the clipboard. This is more than a theoretical risk for users, with countless apps already caught abusing their privacy in this way.

Worryingly, one of the apps caught snooping by security researchers is the massively popular Chinese app TikTok. Given other security concerns raised about the app, as well as broader worries given its Chinese origins, this became a headline issue. At the time, TikTok owner Bytedance has stated that the problem is related to the use of an outdated Google advertising SDK that was being replaced.

According to TikTok, the issue is “triggered by a feature designed to identify repetitive, spammy behavior,” and has said that it has “already submitted an updated version of the app to the App Store removing the anti-spam feature to eliminate any potential confusion.” Forbes has reported that in other words, they are stating that they’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t and they’re rushing out a fix.

India bans TikTok, dozens of other Chinese apps (4 minute read)

In light of this information, the Indian government has banned 59 apps developed by Chinese firms due to concerns that the apps threaten national security. The apps include TikTok, Community, and Video Call apps from Xiaomi, two of Alibaba Group's Apps, ES File Explorer, and more.

27 of the banned apps were among the top 1,000 Android apps in India in the last month. The apps have been accused of stealing and transmitting users' data in an unauthorized manner. Google and Apple have not yet removed the apps from their stores, but they have complied with such app removal requests in the past.

Remote work spawns “Bossware”, the Invasive, Secretive, spyware from employers. (13 Minute Read)

Next up, let’s talk about the trends of remote work, as people begin to find comfort in working from home, workplaces have started integrating software to track employee productivity, resulting in employers essentially being able to spy on workers inside their own homes.

This form of invasive spyware has been given the name “bossware” in many circles. Bossware is generally able to access data about everything that happens on the device that it is running on. Most products take frequent screenshots and can provide live video feeds of the device. Some products even integrate keyloggers.

Depending on the type of software, workers might not be able to tell when the software is surveilling them. Workers might find requests to install this software difficult to refuse, especially in times of record unemployment. Companies do not always provide work devices for employees.

An embattled group of leakers picks up the WikiLeaks mantle (8 Minute Read)

And last but not least, this week we’re discussing a most polarizing topic. For the past year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has sat in a London jail awaiting extradition to the US. 

This week, the US Justice Department piled on yet more hacking conspiracy allegations against him, all related to his decade-plus at the helm of an organization that exposed reams of government and corporate secrets to the public. But in Julian's absence, another group has picked up where WikiLeaks left off—and is also picking new fights. A small group of activists known as Distributed Denial of Secrets has released a stream of hacked and leaked documents.

Last week, it released a 269GB collection of more than a million police files, including emails, audio, and memos. “Our role is to archive and publish leaked and hacked data of potential public interest," writes the group's cofounder, Emma Best, a longtime transparency activist, in a text message interview with WIRED. "We want to inspire people to come forward, and release accurate information regardless of its source."

In another message, Best sums up that mission in a Latin phrase that better captures the adversarial nature—and inherent controversy—translates to "Know the truth, though the heavens may fall and the world burn."

Perhaps most importantly, Best says DDoSecrets wants to avoid the cult of personality that formed around Julian Assange.

The WikiLeaks leader had exerted near-monarchic rule before being indicted for computer hacking conspiracy and arrested in London's Ecuadorian embassy, where he had sought asylum, last spring. Best says DDoSecrets is moving toward a "co-op" model with a "horizontal structure" of leadership, with no single person in charge of the group's direction.

Twitter has banned the group's account, as well as any tweets that link to the DDoSecrets website. But Jonsdottir says it also shows the importance of the work they're doing. "They will definitely rise above this," Jonsdottir says. "Somebody trusted them with a massive leak at a critical time. And I’m excited to see if it will help spawn more like it."

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