Category: USA

Apple sues NSO Group over “Pegasus” spyware

30. November 2021

On November 25th, Apple announced in a press release that it has filed a lawsuit against NSO Group Technologies Ltd. (NSO Group) to hold them accountable for their spy software “Pegasus”.

NSO Group is a technology company that supplies surveillance software for governments and government agencies. Applications like Pegasus exploit vulnerabilities in software to infect the target’s devices with Trojans. Pegasus is a spyware that can be secretly installed on cell phones (and other devices) running most iOS and Android versions. Pegasus is not a single exploit, but a series of exploits that exploit many vulnerabilities in the system. Some of the exploits used by Pegasus are zero-click, which means that they can be executed without any interaction from the victim. It is reorted to be able to read text messages, track calls, collect passwords, track location, access the microphone and camera of the targeted device, extract contacts, photos, web browsing history, settings and collect information from apps.

NSO Group is accused of selling its software to authoritarian governments, which use it to monitor journalists and the opposition. Accusations that the company regularly denies. According to an investigation done by a global consortium of journalists of 17 media oganizations, Pegasus has been used to monitor female journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and high-ranking politicians. There are even reports suggesting it is even used by Mexican drug cartels to target and intimidate Mexican journalists. Among the more famous confirmed Pegasus victims are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

Apple wants to prevent “further abuse and harm” to Apple users. The lawsuit also demands unspecified compensation for spying on users.

In the press release Apple states:

NSO Group and its clients devote the immense resources and capabilities of nation-states to conduct highly targeted cyberattacks, allowing them to access the microphone, camera, and other sensitive data on Apple and Android devices. To deliver FORCEDENTRY to Apple devices, attackers created Apple IDs to send malicious data to a victim’s device — allowing NSO Group or its clients to deliver and install Pegasus spyware without a victim’s knowledge. Though misused to deliver FORCEDENTRY, Apple servers were not hacked or compromised in the attacks.

Ivan Krstić, head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture is quoted:

In a free society, it is unacceptable to weaponize powerful state-sponsored spyware against those who seek to make the world a better place

Apple has announced the lawsuit contains new information about the so-called ForcedEntry exploit for a now-closed vulnerability that NSO Group used to “break into a victim’s Apple device and install the latest version of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware program,” according to Apple’s press release. The vulnerability was originally discovered by Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto. Apple says it will support organizations like Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech in their work, and will donate $10 million and any compensation from the lawsuit to organizations involved in researching and protecting against cyber surveillance. The company will also support Citizen Lab with free technology and technical assistance.

Apple is the second major company to sue NSO Group after WhatsApp Inc. and its parent company Meta Platforms, Inc.(then Facebook, Inc.) filed a complaint against NSO Group in 2019. The allogation of that lawsuit is that NSO Group unlawfully exploited WhatsApp’s systems to monitor users.

In early November 2021, the US Department of Commerce placed NSO Group on its “Entity List”. The justification for this step states that Pegasus was used to monitor government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy staff. On the “Entity List,” the U.S. government lists companies, individuals or governments whose activities are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States. Trade with these companies is subject to strict restrictions and in some cases is only possible with an exemption from the Department.

US court unsuccessfully demanded extensive information about user of the messenger app Signal

16. November 2021

On October 27th, 2021 Signal published a search warrant for user data issued by a court in Santa Clara, California. The court ordered Signal to provide a variety of information, including a user’s name, address, correspondence, contacts, groups, and call records from the years 2019 and 2020. Signal was only able to provide two sets of data: the timestamp of when the account was created and the date of the last connection to the Signal server, as Signal does not store any other information about its users.

The warrant also included a confidentiality order that was extended four times. Signal stated:

Though the judge approved four consecutive non-disclosure orders, the court never acknowledged receipt of our motion to partially unseal, nor scheduled a hearing, and would not return counsel’s phone calls seeking to schedule a hearing.

A similar case was made public by Signal in 2016, when a court in Virginia requested the release of user data and ordered that the request not be made public. Signal fought the non-publication order in court and eventually won.

Signal is a messenger app that is highly regarded among privacy experts like Edward Snowden. That’s because Signal has used end-to-end encryption by default from the start, doesn’t ask its users for personal information or store personal data on its servers and is open source. The messenger is therefore considered particularly secure and trustworthy. Moreover, no security vulnerabilities have become known so far, which is definitely the case with numerous competing products.

Since 2018, Signal is beeing operated by the non-profit organization Signal Technology Foundation and the Signal Messenger LLC. At that time, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, among others, joined the company and invested $50 million. Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike is also still on board.

The EU commission is planning a legislative package to fight the spread of child abuse on the Internet. The law will also include automated searches of the content of private and encrypted communications, for example via messenger apps. This would undermine the core functions of Signal in Europe. Critics call this form of preventive mass surveillance a threat to privacy, IT security, freedom of expression and democracy.

Processing of COVID-19 immunization data of employees in non-EEA countries

27. October 2021

As COVID-19 vaccination campaigns are well under way, employers are faced with the question of whether they are legally permitted to ask employees about their COVID-19 related information (vaccinated, recovered) and, if so, how that information may be used.

COVID-19 related information, such as vaccination status, if an employee has recovered from an infection or whether an employee is infected with COVID-19, is considered health data. This type of data is considered particularly sensitive data in most data protection regimes, which may only be processed under strict conditions. Art. 9 (1) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)(EU), Art. 9 (1) UK-GDPR (UK), Art. 5 (II) General Personal Data Protection Law (LGPD) (Brazil), para. 1798.140. (b) California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA) (California) all consider health-related information as sensitive personal data.

The following discusses whether employers in various non-EEA countries are permitted to process COVID-19-related information about their employees.

Brazil: According to the Labor Code (CLT), employers in Brazil have the right to require their employees to be vaccinated. This is because the employer is responsible for the health and safety of its employees in the workplace and therefore has the right to take reasonable measures to ensure health and safety in the workplace. Since employers can require their employees to be vaccinated, they can also require proof of vaccination. Because LGPD considers this information to be sensitive personal data, special care must be taken in processing it.

Hong-Kong: An employer may require its employees to disclose their immunization status. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance (OSHO), employers are required to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure the safety and health of all their employees in the workplace. The vaccine may be considered as part of COVID-19 risk assessments as a possible additional measure to mitigate the risks associated with contracting the virus in the workplace. The requirement for vaccination must be lawful and reasonable. Employers may decide, following such a risk assessment, that a vaccinated workforce is necessary and appropriate to mitigate risk. If the employer does so, it must comply with the Personal Data Privacy Ordinance (PDPO). Among other things, the PDPO requires that the collection of data must be necessary for the purpose for which it is collected and must not be kept longer than is necessary for that purpose. Under the PDPO, before collecting data, the employer must inform the employee whether the collection is mandatory or voluntary for the employee and, if mandatory, what the consequences are for the employee if he or she does not provide the data.

UK: An employer may inquire about an employee’s vaccination status or conduct tests on employees if it is proportionate and necessary for the employer to comply with its legal obligation to ensure health and safety at work. The employer must be able to demonstrate that the processing of this information is necessary for compliance with its health and safety obligations under employment law, Art. 9 (2) (b) UK GDPR. He must also conduct a data protection impact assessment to evaluate the necessity of the data collection and balance that necessity against the employee’s right to privacy. A policy for the collection of such data and its retention is also required. The information must be retained only as long as it is needed. There must also be no risk of unlawful discrimination, e.g. the reason for refusing vaccination could be protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010.

USA: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a document in which it suggests that an employer may implement a vaccination policy as a condition of physically returning to the workplace. Before implementing a vaccination requirement, an employer should consider whether there are any relevant state laws or regulations that might change anything about the requirements for such a provision. If an employer asks an unvaccinated employee questions about why he or she has not been vaccinated or does not want to be vaccinated, such questions may elicit information about a disability and therefore would fall under the standard for disability-related questions. Because immunization records are personally identifiable information about an employee, the information must be recorded, handled, and stored as confidential medical information. If an employer self-administers the vaccine to its employees or contracts a third party to do so, the employer must demonstrate that the screening questions are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

New Mexico Attorney General files suit against “angry birds” developer

30. August 2021

The developer of the popular app “Angry Birds” is currently under investigation by the New Mexican Attorney General.

On August 25, 2021, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed charges against Rovio Entertainment. The company is alleged to have violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and to have intentionally collected the data of players under the age of 13. One of the accusations is that the data was processed for commercial purposes.

COPPA requires app developers to inform parents of children of the appropriate age about their data collection practices. Further, it is required to obtain parental consent for the collection of personal data from children under 13 and to properly record that consent.

The Attorney General’s complaint alleges that children’s data was disclosed to third parties for the purpose of targeted advertising. The data is analyzed, vermacred to third parties, and from then on is also available to an even wider circle of interests. The Angry Bird developer is also said to have failed to obtain parental consent and to have proclaimed it. The privacy policy was also said to be misleading. The company however stated that the Angry Birds app was not for children. Nevertheless, according to the authorities the developers are aware that the application is downloaded and played by a young audience in particular. Even in the event that the privacy policy is not specifically marketed to minors, however, the company must take measures under COPPA to minimize the risk to children.

The procedure may entail civil penalties, restitution, and other relief.

Children’s data also receive special protection within the EU. According to Art. 8 of the GDPR, this protection even applies up to the age of 16. However, the state legislators are free to set this limit at the age of 13.

Colorado Privacy Act officially enacted into Law

14. July 2021

On July 8, 2021, the state of Colorado officially enacted the Colorado Privacy Act (CPA), which makes it the third state to have a comprehensive data privacy law, following California and Virginia. The Act will go into effect on July 1, 2023, with some specific provisions going into effect at later dates.

The CPA shares many similarities with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the Virgina Consumer Data Protection Act (CDPA), not having developed any brand-new ideas in its laws. However, there are also differences. For example, the CPA applies to controllers that conduct business in Colorado or target residents of Colorado with their business, and controls or processes the data of more than 100 000 consumers in a calendar year or receive revenue by processing data of more than 25 000 consumers. Therefore, it is broader than the CDPA, and does not include revenue thresholds like the CCPA.

Similar to the CDPA, the CPA defines a consumer as “a Colorado resident acting only in an individual or household context” and explicitly omits individuals acting in “a commercial or employment context, as a job applicant, or as a beneficiary of someone acting in an employment context”. As a result, controllers do not need to consider the employee personal data they collect and process in the application of the CPA.

The CPA further defines “the sale of personal information” as “the exchange of personal data for monetary or other valuable consideration by a controller to a third party”. Importantly, the definition of “sale” explicitly excludes certain types of disclosures, as is the case in the CDPA, such as:

  • Disclosures to a processor that processes the personal data on behalf of a controller;
  • Disclosures of personal data to a third party for purposes of providing a product or service requested by consumer;
  • Disclosures or transfer or personal data to an affiliate of the controller’s;
  • Disclosure or transfer to a third party of personal data as an asset that is part of a proposed or actual merger, acquisition, bankruptcy, or other transaction in which the third party assumes control of all or part of the controller’s assets;
  • Disclosure of personal data that a consumer directs the controller to disclose or intentionally discloses by using the controller to interact with a third party; or intentionally made available by a consumer to the general public via a channel of mass media.

The CPA provides five main consumer rights, such as the right of access, right of correction, right of deletion, right to data portability and right to opt out. In case of the latter, the procedure is different from the other laws. The CPA mandates a controller provide consumers with the right to opt out and a universal opt-out option so a consumer can click one button to exercise all opt-out rights.

In addition, the CPA also provides the consumer with a right to appeal a business’ denial to take action within a reasonable time period.

The CPA differentiates between controller and processor in a similar way that the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does and follows, to an extent, similar basic principles such as duty of transparency, duty of purpose specification, duty of data minimization, duty of care and duty to avoid secondary use. In addition, it follows the principle of duty to avoid unlawful discrimination, which prohibits controllers from processing personal data in violation of state or federal laws that prohibit discrimination.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announces the Data Protection Act 2021

30. June 2021

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced in a press release on June 17, 2021, the reintroduction of the Data Protection Act of 2021. The intention is to create an independent federal agency, the Data Protection Agency, to better equip data protection in the U.S. for the digital age.

Since the first bill was drafted in 2020, it has undergone several updates. For example, the paper will now include adjusted rules to protect data subjects against privacy violations, monitor risky data practices, and examine social, ethical, and economic impacts of data collection. In the press release, Gillibrand explains that the DPA will have three main core tasks. The core tasks are driven by the goal of preventing risky data practices and regulating the collection, processing and sharing of personal data.

The first goal, she says, is to give individuals control and protection over their own data. To this end, data subjects should be given the right to establish and enforce data protection rules. To implement this, emphasis would also have to be placed on complaint handling. The authority would also be given wide-ranging powers. For example, it would be able to conduct investigations and administer civil penalties, injunctions and other appropriate remedies to combat data privacy violations.

The second task would be to promote fair competition in the digital market. This can be achieved, for example, through the development and refinement of model standards, guidelines and policies to protect privacy and data protection. Companies should find it easier to deal with data protection. At the same time, the U.S. should be able to keep pace with leading nations in data protection.

In this context data aggregators are to be monitored by the Data Protection Agency by maintaining a publicly available list of such data aggregators that meet certain thresholds. The FTC (Federal Trade Commission) would at the same time be required to report on the privacy and data protection implications of mergers involving major data aggregators or involving the transfer of personal data of 50,000 or more individuals. The bill would also lastly prohibit data aggregators from certain acts. For example, it would prevent the commission of abusive or discriminatory acts in connection with the processing or transfer of personal data. The goal, Gillibrand says, is also to prevent the identification of a person, household, or device from anonymized data.

A third important task is to prepare the U.S. government for the digital age. The agency is supposed to contribute to more education on digital issues by advising Congress on new privacy and technology issues. She says the agency would also participate as the U.S. representative in international privacy forums. The goal also is to ensure consistent regulatory treatment of personal data by federal and state agencies. To that extent, the authority would act as an interface between federal and state agencies.

Senator Gillibrand commented as follows: “In today’s digital age, Big Tech companies are free to sell individuals’ data to the highest bidder without fear of real consequences, posing a severe threat to modern-day privacy and civil rights. A data privacy crisis is looming over the everyday lives of Americans and we need to hold these bad actors accountable. (…) The U.S. needs a new approach to privacy and data protection and it’s Congress’ duty to step forward and seek answers that will give Americans meaningful protection from private companies that value profits over people.”

Category: General · USA

New details on alleged spying on allies by the NSA

18. June 2021

It has been known for years that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been targeting leading politicians. But now new details of the spying operation are coming to light. Several European media investigated the case and found out that the NSA had been using Danish underwater internet cables from 2012 to 2014 to eavesdrop on leading European politicians. It was only through the research that the members of the governments learned of the spying. With regard to this, questions arose, whether Denmark was involved and knew about the operation. Now various European countries demand answers to the allegations.

The media reports revealed that the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) had helped the NSA to wiretap European politicians (in German) by allowing the NSA to use the secret Sandagergårdan listening post near Copenhagen. An important internet hub for various underwater cables was then tapped there. The NSA apparently got access to text messages, telephone calls and internet traffic including searches, chats and messaging services.

Following the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and a subsequent investigation by a secret internal working group at DDIS, the Danish-US cooperation in the surveillance of European neighboring countries was documented in an internal report of DDIS in 2015. However, the findings have not been disclosed until today. Nevertheless, the Danish government has probably known about the spying operation since 2015 at the latest. More than that, the surveillance apparently also targeted Denmark itself (in German), including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance.

Danish Defence Minister Trine Bramsen was informed about the spying in August 2020. In the wake of that, some DDIS employees were fired, without a full explanation being released. The government said at the time that an audit had raised suspicions of illegal surveillance by DDIS. In October 2020, the Danish Ministry of Justice ordered a commission of inquiry into the operations at DDIS. Its conclusions are due at the end of 2021.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, being among those affected by the espionage, made clear that such tactics were not acceptable between allies. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist agreed with the statements. While emphasizing the value of relations between Europeans and Americans, they insisted on explaining the case by the two accused countries. Neither of the intelligence services would comment on the allegations. The Danish Defence Minister only stated in general terms that systematic wiretapping of close allies was unacceptable.

High Court dismisses Facebook’s procedural complaints in Data Transfer Case

18. May 2021

On Friday, May 14th 2021, the Irish High Court dismissed all of Facebook’s procedural complaints in a preliminary decision from Ireland’s Data Protection Commission regarding data transfers from the EU to the U.S. It rejected Facebook’s claims that the privacy regulator had given it too little time to respond or issued a judgment prematurely.

If finalized, the preliminary decision could force the social-media company to suspend sending personal information about EU users to Facebook’s servers in the U.S. While the decision of the High Court was only a procedural one, experts warn that the logic in Ireland’s provisional order could apply to other large tech companies that are subject to U.S. surveillance laws. This could potentially lead to a widespread disruption of trans-Atlantic data flows.

Facebook addressed the preliminary decision, stating that Friday’s court decision was procedural and that it planned to defend its data transfers before the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC). It added that the regulator’s preliminary decision could be “damaging not only to Facebook, but also to users and other businesses.”

However, the Irish DPC still needs to finalize its draft decision ordering a suspension of data transfers and submit it to other EU privacy regulators for approval before it comes into effect. That process could take months, not counting potential other court challenges by Facebook.

Portuguese DPA Orders Suspension of U.S. Data Transfers by National Institute of Statistics

29. April 2021

On April 27, 2021, the Portuguese Data Protection Authority “Comissão Nacional de Proteção de Dados” (CNPD) ordered the National Institute of Statistics (INE) to suspend any international data transfers of personal data to the U.S., as well as other countries without an adequate level of protection, within 12 hours.

The INE collects different kinds of data from Portuguese residents from 2021 Census surveys and transfers it to Cloudfare, Inc. (Cloudfare), a service provider in the U.S. that assists the surveys’ operation. EU Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) are in place with the U.S. service provider to legitimize the data transfers.

Due to receiving a lot of complaints, the CNPD started an investigation into the INE’s data transfers to third countries outside of the EU. In the course of the investigation, the CNDP concluded that Cloudfare is directly subject to U.S. surveillance laws, such as FISA 702, for national security purposes. These kinds of U.S. surveillance laws impose a legal obligation on companies like Cloudfare to give unrestricted access to personal data of its customers and users to U.S. public authorities without informing the data subjects.

In its decision to suspend any international data transfers of the INE, the CNPD referred to the Schrems II ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Accordingly, the CNPD is if the opinion that personal data transferred to the U.S. by the INE was not afforded a level of data protection essentially equivalent to that guaranteed under EU law, as further safeguards have to be put in place to guarantee requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required under EU law by the principle of proportionality. Due to the lack of further safeguards, the surveillance by the U.S. authorities are not limited to what is strictly necessary, and therefore the SCCs alone do not offer adequate protection.

The CNPD also highlighted that, according to the Schrems II ruling, data protection authorities are obliged to suspend or prohibit data transfers, even when those transfers are based on the European Commission’s SCCs, if there are no guarantees that these can be complied with in the recipient country. As Cloudfare is also receiving a fair amount of sensitive data n relation to its services for the INE, it influenced the CNDP’s decision to suspend the transfers.

Facebook data leak affects more than 500 million users

7. April 2021

Confidential data of 533 million Facebook users has surfaced in a forum for cybercriminals. A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that the data came from a leak in 2019.

The leaked data includes Facebook usernames and full name, date of birth, phone number, location and biographical information, and in some cases, the email address of the affected users. Business Insider has verified the leaked data through random sampling. Even though some of the data may be outdated, the leak poses risks if, for example, email addresses or phone numbers are used for hacking. The leak was made public by the IT security firm Hudson Rock. Their employees noticed that the data sets were offered by a bot for money in a hacking forum. The data set was then offered publicly for free and thus made accessible to everyone.

The US magazine Wired points out that Facebook is doing more to confuse than to help clarify. First, Facebook referred to an earlier security vulnerability in 2019, which we already reported. This vulnerability was patched in August last year. Later, a blog post from a Facebook product manager confirmed that it was a major security breach. However, the data had not been accessed through hacking, but rather the exploitation of a legitimate Facebook feature. In addition, the affected data was so old that GDPR and U.S. privacy laws did not apply, he said. In the summer of 2019, Facebook reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay a $5 billion fine for all data breaches before June 12, 2019. According to Wired, the current database is not congruent with the one at issue at the time, as the most recent Facebook ID in it is from late May 2019.

Users can check whether they are affected by the data leak via the website HaveIBeenPwned.

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