Mysterious Robin Hood hackers donating stolen money

A hacking group is donating stolen money to charity in what is seen as a mysterious first for cyber-crime that’s puzzling experts.

Darkside hackers claim to have extorted millions of dollars from companies, but say they now want to “make the world a better place”.

In a post on the dark web, the gang posted receipts for $10,000 in Bitcoin donations to two charities.

One of them, Children International, says it will not be keeping the money.

The move is being seen as a strange and troubling development, both morally and legally.

In the blog post on 13 October, the hackers claim they only target large profitable companies with their ransomware attacks. The attacks hold organisations’ IT systems hostage until a ransom is paid.

They wrote: “We think that it’s fair that some of the money the companies have paid will go to charity.

“No matter how bad you think our work is, we are pleased to know that we helped changed someone’s life. Today we sended (sic) the first donations.”

The cyber-criminals posted the donation along with tax receipts they received in exchange for the 0.88 Bitcoin they had sent to two charities, The Water Project and Children International.

Children International supports children, families and communities in India, the Philippines, Colombia, Ecuador, Zambia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States.

A Children International spokesperson told the BBC: “If the donation is linked to a hacker, we have no intention of keeping it”.

The Water Project, which works to improve access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, has not responded to requests for comment.

Brett Callow, Threat Analyst at cyber-security company Emsisoft, said: “What the criminals hope to achieve by making these donations is not at all clear. Perhaps it helps assuage their guilt? Or perhaps for egotistical reasons they want to be perceived as Robin Hood-like characters rather than conscienceless extortionists.

“Whatever their motivations, it’s certainly a very unusual step and is, as far as I know, the first time a ransomware group has donated a portion of their profits to charity.”

The Darkside hacker group is relatively new on the scene, but analysis of the crypto-currency market confirms they are actively extorting funds from victims.

There is also evidence they may have links to other cyber-criminal groups responsible for high-profile attacks on companies including Travelex, which was crippled by ransomware in January.

The way the hackers paid the charities is also a possible cause for concern for law enforcement.

The cyber-criminals used a US-based service called The Giving Block, which is used by 67 different non-profits from around the world including Save The Children, Rainforest Foundation and She’s The First.

The Giving Block describes itself online as “the only non-profit specific solution for accepting crypto-currency donations”.

The company was set up in 2018 to offer cryptocurrency ‘millionaires’ the ability to take advantage of the “huge tax incentive to donate Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies directly to non-profits”.

The Giving Block told the BBC it was not aware these donations were made by cyber-criminals. It said: “We are still working to determine if these funds were actually stolen.

“If it turns out these donations were made using stolen funds, we will of course begin the work of returning them to the rightful owner.”

The company did not clarify if this means returning the stolen money to the criminals, or attempting to work out which of the criminal victims it intended to reimburse and how.

The Giving Block, which is also an advocate for crypto-currencies, added: “The fact they used crypto will make it easier, not harder, to catch them.”

However, The Giving Block has not given details on what information they collect on their donors. Most services that buy and sell digital coins like Bitcoin require users to verify their identity, but it’s not clear whether this has been done here.

As an experiment, the BBC attempted to donate anonymously through The Giving Block’s online system, and was not asked any identity verification questions.

Experts say the case highlights the complexity and dangers of anonymous donations.

Crypto-currency investigator Philip Gradwell from Chainanalysis said: “If you walked into a charity shop with an anonymous mask on and donated £10,000 in cash, then asked for a taxable receipt, questions should probably be asked – and it’s no different.

“It’s right to say that researchers and law enforcement have become adept at tracing crypto-currency funds as they are moved around from wallet to wallet. But finding who actually owns each wallet is far more complicated.

“By allowing anonymous donations from potentially illicit sources, it opens up the danger of money laundering.

“All crypto-currency businesses need a full range of Anti-Money Laundering measures including a Know Your Customer (KYC) program of basic background checks, so that they can understand who is behind the transactions their business facilitates.”

The BBC has spoken with other charities which accept donations via The Giving Project.

Save the Children told the BBC it would “never knowingly take money obtained through crime”.

She’s the First, a charity for girls’ education around the world, said it would not be comfortable accepting money from anonymous, possibly criminal, sources and said: “It’s a shame that bad actors would exploit the opportunity to donate crypto-currency for personal gain, and we hope that even anonymous donors share our community’s values.”

The fake reporter wanted to know about our software

As Johannes Siebers sat and nervously waited for the imposter to turn up, it could have been a scene from a spy movie.

Johannes and his younger brother Michael were in a cafe in Munich, where they had arranged to meet a fake journalist.

The pretend writer had got in touch, claiming to be from one of Germany’s leading magazines. He said he wanted to interview the brothers about their new company Holidu, a holiday rentals price comparison website.

The man added that he was particularly interested in finding out more about the image recognition software they had developed.

This automatically checks the photos of millions of villas and apartments around the world, be they on private websites, or the likes of Airbnb. The software does this to ensure that if a particular property is featured in numerous places online, which is often the case, Holidu only lists it once, and at the cheapest available price.

“But I smelt a rat straight away,” says Michael, looking back on events in 2014. “For a journalist he didn’t write very well, and his email address looked odd.

“So I phoned the magazine, and they were very shocked and cross because they had never heard of the man. Then we obviously phoned the police, who asked us to go ahead and arrange to meet the man.

“So we did, with two people from the magazine sat on a different table in the cafe. When the man came in, he was very nervous too, and we just had to keep him talking for a bit, before the police arrived and arrested him.”

While Michael and his brother never found out who had employed the man, they believe it was one of their many rivals, a firm keen to find out more about their technology.

Fast forward to this year, and Holidu’s image recognition software is still busy at work. While many firms in the travel industry have had a terrible 2020 as the pandemic has shut down large parts of the industry, Holidu says it has seen growth in one area – from staycations.

“Things looked very worrying back at the start of the year, but what we have benefited from is a big increase in the number of people going on holiday in their own country, instead of going abroad,” says Michael.

“And rather than staying in hotels, where they would come into contact with other people, they are choosing to rent a holiday home.”

As image recognition software has grown in both sophistication and usage in recent years, there are now an increasing number of companies whose business model is based solely on the use of the technology.

One such firm is Brandwatch, whose software allows companies to search for photographs of their products across the internet, and all forms of social media.

Brandwatch, which has its headquarters in Brighton, on England’s south coast, plus large offices in the US, Spain, France, Germany, Singapore and Australia, says it processes more than 100 million images every day.

Chris Bingham, Brandwatch’s US-based chief technology officer, says it has seen a big rise in enquiries this year for its cloud-based app.

“This is not just because more retailers are rushing to move online,” he says. “Instead the pandemic has shown how quickly things can change – more people working from home and shopping online. That change was literally overnight.

New Tech Economy is a series exploring how technological innovation is set to shape the new emerging economic landscape.

“So brands are looking for as much insight as possible. And we estimate that 80% of photos of products online are not accompanied by the name of the brand written in text form. So to find that 80% you have to just search for the images themselves.

“The way our system works is you type in, say, the name of a brand, and the word ‘beach’, and within seconds you’ll see all the photos of that brand’s products on a beach.”

Brandwatch’s 2,000 customers can then use this information for everything from better targeting of their advertising, or developing new product lines adapted for where items are most used or consumed, or tracking down counterfeits.

For retailers who maintain a physical presence on High Streets, image recognition software has been increasingly used in recent years to tackle the problem of repeat offending shoplifters. However, the mandatory use of face masks in certain locations has tripped up some systems.

One UK provider, Facewatch, says it has now updated its CCTV systems to be able to recognise someone even if they are wearing a mask.

“It focuses on the periocular area – the area around your eyes,” says spokesman Stuart Greenfield. “We are very excited, it is a big development not just in facial recognition, but in crime prevention.

“We have seen a lot of interest from retailers as they continue to trade under the continuing pandemic restrictions.

“The Co-Op [supermarket chain] has just taken it on, as has Budgens, and we are talking to other retailers. We are aiming to have 5,000 users by the end of next year.”

Drivers to be banned from picking up mobile phones

It will become illegal for anyone to pick up and use their mobile phone while driving, under new legislation to be enacted next year.

The change will end a loophole that can allow drivers to escape punishment for using a hand-held phone to take a photo or play a game.

Mobiles will still be able to be used to pay for a drive-through takeaway.

And drivers will still be able to use devices hands-free under the plans, the Department for Transport said.

At present, making phone calls and sending text messages are banned while driving.

Ministers have rejected calls to also ban the use of hands-free function, for example using a sat-nav in a phone cradle.

Roads minister Baroness Vere said hand-held phone use behind the wheel was “distracting and dangerous” and that “for too long risky drivers have been able to escape punishment”.

The change in law would apply across the UK and is expected to come into effect early next year, depending on the outcome of the consultation.

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Roads Policing, Chief Constable Anthony Bangham, said: “Using a mobile phone while driving is incredibly dangerous and being distracted at the wheel can change lives forever.

“Police will take robust action against those using a hand-held mobile phone illegally and proposals to make the law clearer are welcome.”

The punishment for drivers caught breaking the rules on hand-held mobile use is six penalty points and a £200 fine.

Source: UK government – read more

In 2019, there were 637 casualties on Britain’s roads – including 18 deaths and 135 serious injuries – in crashes where a driver using a mobile was a contributory factor.

But drivers have successfully argued that filming or taking photos while driving does not match the wording in the current legislation – which says it is illegal to use a device “which performs an interactive communication” while driving.

In 2019 Ramsey Barreto was found guilty of using his phone to film a crash in north London two years ago. However, the 51-year-old then successfully appealed against the conviction.

The ruling led two High Court judges to criticise the 16-year-old law on using mobile phones, which they said had failed to evolve with the rise of smartphones.

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “The closing of this loophole is very welcome and reflects the multitude of ways drivers can use hand-held phones when behind the wheel in 2020.

“We know that the use of hand-held mobile phones at the wheel continues to represent a very real road safety risk, so it’s clear more needs to be done to make this as socially unacceptable as drink-driving.”

US election 2020: The young people struggling in the 2020 economy

The pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on young people. And in the US, where the crisis is colliding with a bitter presidential election, the strains are expected to leave a mark on their politics, further widening the gap with older, more conservative generations.

In January, Joshua Boyer was on the cusp of living his version of the American Dream. The 30-year-old was planning to launch a career in social work, start a family with his fiancée in a few years, and eventually buy a house.

The pandemic, he says, “changed everything”.

Five months after graduating with his master’s degree, he remains without a job, despite applying to some 300 openings – including positions at warehouses, restaurants and grocery stores. This month, as the financial assistance he was getting as a military veteran expired, he moved in with his fiancée’s family in Oregon, giving up his Portland-area apartment.

It all feels eerily familiar to Joshua, who graduated from high school in 2008, when the world was in the midst of the global financial crisis. At the time, he entered the military to escape the desolate prospects facing him in the labour market, which he saw stalling the lives of many of his peers.

“Having gone through both of these recessions, it feels like more of the same,” he says. “Everyone is going to understand this giant gap in my employment history right now, but that’s still my biggest fear… are we going to be another lost generation?”

Joshua’s concerns are widely shared.

In the US, adults aged 16-29 accounted for a third of the rise in the unemployment rate between February and April, despite representing less than a quarter of the workforce.

As of June, some 28% of 16-24-year-olds were neither working nor in school, more than double pre-pandemic levels, while by July, a majority of 18-29-year-olds were living with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression.

Such setbacks, early on in a career, can have long-term consequences, with research finding that entering the workforce in a weak economy acts as a drag on wage growth and career prospects for years.

And many young adults in their 30s are still grappling with the aftershocks from the 2007 financial crisis, which ushered in a decade of stagnant wage growth, despite sharply rising housing and health costs.

By 2016, the typical 32-year-old had 34% less wealth than a 32-year old from prior generations – a gap that had widened since 2010, America’s central bank reported in 2018.

“The economic prospects are fundamentally different” for younger generations, says University of Delaware political science professor Vladimir Medenica, a research consultant with the University of Chicago’s GenForward Survey Project, which routinely polls young adults about finances and politics. “There’s really no comparison.”

Even before the pandemic, finding a good job was difficult, says A’Naiya Davis, 23, of Texas, who lived with her parents and worked in minimum wage retail positions after graduating from college in 2018.

She finally moved out after landing a role last year as a content specialist for a website – only to lose it in June amid pandemic cuts. Though she secured another job in September, the intervening months forced her to dip into savings and postpone plans to buy a new car.

She says she feels lucky to have less than $15,000 in student debt – the average American student borrower has about $30,000 – but the traditional markers of adulthood, like buying a home or even living without a roommate, feel increasingly out of reach.

“I don’t feel like we’ll ever get the opportunity to catch up,” she says. “I feel like I’m always running to reach that line where I’m OK, I can break even, I’m fine.”

Academic research has found that people hit by economic downturns during their formative years are more likely to favour redistributive policies and attribute success to luck rather than hard work.

In the US, such shifts have appeared in surveys of young adults that show declining approval of capitalism, stronger identification with the Democratic Party and outsize support for politicians on the left such as Social Democrat Bernie Sanders, who has made questions of economic justice central to his message.

As of August, just 23% of those between the ages of 18 and 36 said they planned to support Republican Donald Trump’s re-election to the presidency, a GenForward survey found.

The generational differences in the US are influenced by many factors, including the more diverse make-up of younger adults, but “economic experiences are definitely a part of that,” says Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center, which reported a growing “generation gap” in politics in 2018.

“We can see in our data the struggles they’re having landing a secure job and also being able to pay basic expenses,” she says. “Those experiences are things they’re most likely going to bring to the ballot box.”

Andrew Quist, 23, who plans to vote for Democrat Joe Biden in November, has been living with his parents in Michigan and looking for a job in software engineering since graduating from college in May.

He says he’s lucky to have family support to fall back on – including a part-time job at his father’s business – but he’s worried about those in less fortunate circumstances, especially in an era when technology is changing many industries.

“Because I have the resources that I do and the support that I do and I cannot find a job myself, it makes me very concerned for people who do not have the same,” he says. “Most of the people I know… are almost sort of resigned to the fact that they straight up won’t have a career.”

Not everyone has lost hope.

As a first generation American, 28-year-old Fernando Acosta says he sees plenty of opportunity for people willing to invest in themselves – pointing in part to his own story, as the first in his family to go to college and his success networking his way to his current job, as a project manager in the public sector in New York.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual,” he says. But Acosta, a Republican who plans to vote for Mr Trump, knows he’s an outlier among his peers.

“Sometimes it gets really rough and you just want things to be resolved right away,” he says. “This is why a lot of people in my generation lean left.”

People under the age of 40 account for more than a third of the US electorate, but they have historically voted at lower levels than older generations.

While there are questions about whether Mr Biden, who is considered relatively moderate, will bring them to the polls in high numbers, Prof Medenica says he is “cautiously optimistic” that youth turnout will be strong, pointing to signs like higher levels of voter registration.

Alicia Gallegos, 21, of New Mexico, who backed Mr Sanders in the primary and describes herself as holding “very radical” political views, says she doesn’t expect Mr Biden to push for the economic changes she would like to see. But, for now, she thinks he’s a better option when it comes to issues such as racial justice, immigration, gun violence and climate change.

But Alicia, who stopped going to university full-time last year after her father lost his job and works at electronics retailer Best Buy to help with the family finances, says long-term, she and others like her will demand more.

“The majority of us, we’re kind of poor, and we’re not white, we’re people of colour and we’re tired of seeing this government and this country isn’t made for us, it’s made for the top 1%,” she says. “We realise what’s happening and we want change.”

EU investigates Instagram over handling of childrens data

Instagram is being investigated by Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) over its handling of children’s personal data on the platform.

The social media app’s owner Facebook could face a large fine if Instagram is found to have broken privacy laws.

It comes amid reports Instagram failed to protect data, including allowing email addresses and phone numbers of those under 18 to be made public.

Facebook said it rejected the claims but was cooperating with the DPC.

A number of US tech giants have their European headquarters in Ireland, and the DPC is the lead European Union regulator under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in 2018.

The DPC is responsible for protecting individuals’ right to online privacy, and has the power to issue large fines.

The Irish regulator is investigating whether Facebook has a legal basis for processing children’s personal data and if it employs adequate protections and restrictions on Instagram for children.

Separately, it is also looking at whether Facebook has adhered with GDPR requirements in relation to Instagram’s profile and account settings. It is inquiring into whether Facebook is adequately protecting the data protection rights of children as vulnerable people.

The minimum age for having an Instagram account is 13.

“Instagram is a social media platform which is used widely by children in Ireland and across Europe,” said Graham Doyle, a deputy commissioner with DPC.

“The DPC has been actively monitoring complaints received from individuals in this area and has identified potential concerns in relation to the processing of children’s personal data on Instagram which require further examination.”

According to reports, the investigation stems from a complaint from David Stier, a US-based data scientist who last year analysed profiles of almost 200,000 Instagram users across the world.

He estimated that for over a year, at least 60 million users under the age of 18 were given the option to easily change their profiles into business accounts.

Instagram business accounts require users to display their phone numbers and email addresses publicly, meaning that personal data belonging to many users is visible to other Instagram users.

The same personal information was also contained in the HTML source code of web pages accessed when using Instagram on a computer, meaning that it could be “scraped” by hackers.

Mr Stier reported his findings to Facebook, but he wrote in a Medium blog that Instagram had refused to mask the email addresses and phone numbers for business accounts.

However, Facebook did decide to remove the contact information from the source code of Instagram pages.

However, on Monday a Facebook spokeswoman told the BBC that Mr Stier’s claims were based on a misunderstanding of its systems.

“We’ve always been clear that when people choose to set up a business account on Instagram, the contact information they shared would be publicly displayed. That’s very different to exposing people’s information.

“We’ve also made several updates to business accounts since the time of Mr Stier’s mischaracterisation in 2019, and people can now opt out of including their contact information entirely.”

Mr Stier has also alleged that hackers might have succeeded in stealing personal information from Instagram’s website, after it was revealed in May 2019 that contact details relating to 49 million users were stored online in an unguarded database owned by a firm in India.

“Do we have a responsibility to keep kids’ phone numbers and emails hidden so that strangers can’t find them just by clicking a button?” wrote Mr Stier.

“Speaking as a parent, I want to be assured that the experience Instagram offers to teens is as ‘adult-overseen’ as possible.”

Sir James Dyson to sell Singapore penthouse at a loss

Sir James Dyson has agreed to sell his Singapore penthouse at a loss, just one year after buying it.

Singapore’s Business Times reported that he accepted an offer for $62m Singapore dollars ($47m; £36m) from US-based billionaire Leo Koguan.

The sale price is lower than the reported purchase price of S$73.8m.

Sir James bought the luxurious flat – said to be Singapore’s largest – last year after announcing he was moving Dyson’s headquarters to the city state.

The company is best known for vacuum cleaners, air purifiers and hair dryers.

Dyson also considered building an electric car factory in Singapore, before pulling the plug over concerns about the car’s commercial viability.

Sir James, who topped the Sunday Times Rich List this year, was an advocate for Brexit.

He was accused of hypocrisy when he first announced the move to Singapore in January last year, but the company has long maintained the move had nothing to do with Brexit or tax.

The penthouse occupies the top three levels of the 64-storey Guoco Tower, in the city’s Tanjong Pagar neighbourhood.

Marketing materials advertised the five-bedroom property as the largest “non-landed residence” in Singapore.

The penthouse offers views of Singapore’s harbour and financial district, and comes with its own swimming pool, jacuzzi room and bar facilities.

The reported buyer is Indonesian-born tycoon Leo Koguan, who is the co-founder and chairman of IT provider SHI International.

The company said the sale isn’t an indication that Dyson is thinking of shifting its focus away from Singapore.

Dyson chose the historic St James Power Station in Singapore as the site of its new global headquarters late last year.

“Dyson remains fully committed to expanding its research and development footprint and other operations in Singapore,” a company spokesman said.

The Dyson family owns another property in the city-state, a bungalow worth a reported S$50m.

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