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Data Mining: From the General to the Specific

31 August 2011

Data mining (deep data analysis) — a collective term used for a set of methods for detecting previously unknown, unusual, interpretable and practically useful knowledge in arrays of data that can be used for making decisions in various fields of human activities.

It’s common knowledge that complete privacy in today’s world is a utopian concept: our names appear in different kinds of lists and reports on a daily basis. We pay for goods and services with credit cards, use mobile phones, buy tickets… And when it comes to the Internet, we leave a colossal number of tracks: from the addresses of visited pages to search engine queries – everything can be intercepted, logged and stored in a single database.

The primary purpose of data mining lies in the analysis of huge amounts of data in such databases (involving special analytical patterns).

For instance, there is nothing suspicious about money being transferred from one account to another. Or about somebody buying a plane ticket to a large city. Or buying a large shipment of fertilizers. Or, let’s say, buying a kitchen timer or several cheap mobile phones from an online store. However, if all of these purchases were made by a single person, the local anti-terror force should definitely take a closer look.

It would seem that combining so many heterogeneous pieces of information is an immensely complex task. However, such a system is absolutely possible and may have been in operation for some time now.

The Total Information Awareness program was developed by the Pentagon from 2002 through 2003 and was aimed at detecting suspicious behavioral patterns. Following a number of public protests, it was renamed to Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) and became nearly completely confidential. The report of the Department of Homeland Security mentions three active programs of this type. Similar solutions are being developed by other countries as well: China, the United Kingdom, Israel and Germany.

The legitimacy of such analysis is a matter of harsh public debate and none of the parties has been able to decide whether security is more important than privacy (or vice versa). And while the debate is in full swing, data collection and analysis are booming on the Internet – the Law hasn’t fully set foot on this land yet.

Menace: revenge of former employees

21 March 2011

Employers and their employees do not always manage to part peacefully. That’s why revenge is a fairly commonplace phenomenon that even such giants as Microsoft are not fully protected from.

Revenge can be take the shape of legal action taken against a former employer or even sabotage involving damage or deletion of internal documents and disclosure of corporate secrets.

These are the kinds of problems that Gray Wireline Service, an American engineering company, faced at the end of 2010 after firing Ismael Alvarez, an employee with a 7-year tenure.  Outraged by this decision, Alvarez hacked the corporate server and deleted important reports, as well as information about oil and gas wellsites.

The judge’s response was harsh as well: Ismael got 5 years of suspended imprisonment, 1 year of house arrest and was fined over $20,000 for his actions.

Gray Wireline Service made no comments as to whether the fired employee had access to these documents prior to leaving the company and whether the company implemented any, even the most basic, security features. As a rule, weak security policies are the main reason of such incidents.

A week ago, for instance, a company called PanTerra Networks (PBX provider) suffered massive damage from the actions of a fired employee only because her email account remained active for several months after she left the company. The fired employee found email messages containing confidential financial reports and contracts due to be signed. All of these documents were shared online, which resulted in damages of over $30,000 and loss of many potential clients.

Research: IT security of organizations

5 March 2011

McAfee, Inc. has published research on how aware companies are of risks associated with computer security. This report shows that almost half of the organisations do not have a reliable defence against such risks, or do not know anything about them at all. Only 20% of companies have confidence in their IT security provisions.

Research: IT security of organizations

Despite the fact that a large number of programs have appeared this year which analyze IT security of corporate networks and check compliance management, they have not been very popular. Corporate users prefer integrated solutions to narrowly specialised products.

Due to changes in legislation the need for security policy compliance is an issue for 75% of companies, while 10% have already received fines. Databases containing personal information have caused the greatest problems, so they have received the greatest attention.

“Organizations are under increasing pressure to protect customer information and privacy, as well as their own sensitive business information, driving the need for a strong focus on risk and compliance management. As the results of this study show, companies recognize the need to improve risk management through better identification of threats, vulnerabilities and countermeasures, as well as the need to improve policy compliance through more automation of IT controls,”

said Stuart McClure, senior McAfee vice president.

Microsoft concerned over possible leak of confidential data

25 February 2011

Microsoft initiated a lawsuit to prevent one of its managers from assuming a position in a competing company.

According to Microsoft, Michael Michevsky, their former manager, copied a large number of internal documents prior to leaving Microsoft and intended to disclose them to Salesforce, the company’s direct competitor.

The court agreed to the argumentation of the plaintiff and issued a court order prohibiting Michael to assume the position of a vice president at the competing company.

Microsoft representatives insist that the actions of their former employee are in breach of the non-disclosure and non-compete agreements that he signed at the time he was hired.
The summons also states that Michevsky copied over 900 files with over 25,000 pages of text (around 600 MB) to his laptop. These documents allegedly contained confidential information about the company’s marketing strategy and copyright-protected items.

Salesforce refused to comment on this incident.


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USA: Hackers Getting Better

21 February 2011

According to researches, the number of users affected by cybercrimes in 2010 dwindled by nearly 30% and reached 8 million, which is 3 million fewer than in 2009.

However, despite the decline in the number of victims, the actual damage was much more substantial. This happened due to the fact that attackers used much more intricate and modern techniques with a purpose of inflicting maximum damage and making as much profit as possible on every intrusion.

Old methods, like theft of credit card details and one-time cashing of the stolen money, are rarely used these days, since they are easy to track down. Attackers are using increasingly complex and hard-to-detect schemes. For instance, a fraudster can steal your personal data, open a new bank account, take a bank loan or get a new credit card to cover his tracks…

The calculated value of an average damage per user explains the research results: it grew by 63% to $630 in the period of 2009 to 2010.

According to a research by Javelin Strategy, the growth of retail sales entails a decline in cybercrime rate. The experts who discovered this correlation believe that the rather bad results for 2010 are directly related to the consequences of the global economic crisis.

USA: profitable espionage

4 February 2011

RapLeaf, a US-based company, has been successfully working in the area of social network monitoring (SMM) for several years and has accumulated significant experience in collecting and analyzing these data. In other words, the core of this business is the collection of comprehensive information about Internet users and selling it to interested third parties.

At the moment, RapLeaf’s database contains information about a huge number of uses – over one billion.

The main purpose of this information is obvious: ads and improvement of advertising efficiency through more accurate targeting. Ironically, these services are especially popular among politicians and public figures.

The company even got involved in a minor political scandal at the end of the past year when Wall Street Journal reporters noticed a rapid growth of the amount of finely targeted ads served to specific users. An investigation conducted by WSJ revealed that Jim Bender, a republican candidate, used RapLeaf’s services during his election campaign.

From a legal standpoint, RapLeaf has no right to store users’ names in its databases, but it’s not particularly important at the moment: the law does not prohibit storing the identifiers of users’ social network accounts that can be used to obtain actual users’ names.

Apparently, this data is not mined from social networks only. When a user registers on one of RepLeaf’s affiliate sites, it sets a user cookie that enables its owners to quickly and reliably collect information about this user.

Note that such monitoring activities can and are used for “positive” and “peaceful” purposes as well. For instance, there is a project that uses similar methods and aims at creating a system capable of recognizing the behavioral patterns of people with signs of depression who can potentially commit a suicide or hurt others.


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Lawsuit against a porn site: eavesdropping on visitors

1 February 2011

It’s not a secret that a lion’s share of viruses and other types of malware are contracted on sites featuring adult content – erotic and pornographic materials. However, major publishers rarely cross this line, as the risk of losing sales and reputation is too high.

Mainstream Media International, the owner of YouPorn, a popular porn “tube”, chose another way of making money on its visitors: theft of the users’ browsing history.

These activities became the ground for a collective lawsuit against the company filed by site visitors accusing the company of eavesdropping and violation of privacy. The lawsuit specifically stated that all monitoring was intentional and that the JavaScript that copied browsing history records was obfuscated.

Obfuscation is a method of making the source code of a program unreadable and extremely hard to analyze while completely preserving its functionality.

Information collected using such methods has its price and this price is quite high. Knowing what sites users visited and what content they viewed allows companies to create better targeted paid products or services.

As a rule, such statistical data are purchased by advertising companies and ad networks interested in improving the accuracy of their campaigns and serving more relevant ads.

If the suit is satisfied, Mainstream Media International can be seriously punished for violating a number of laws, including the federal computer fraud and abuse statute, the computer crimes law of California, the competition and consumer rights laws.

Is reading your wife’s email a crime?

20 January 2011

Most of us see nothing criminal in a situation where one of the spouses reads the other’s email or SMS messages. Jealous and insecure types periodically peeked into their spouses’ pockets centuries before computers and cell phones were invented.

However, this situation may drastically change in the US thanks to their precedent system and a trial taking place these days.

The wife of the defendant, 33-year-old Leon Walker, used her husband’s laptop. Apparently, it wasn’t hard for him to steal the password for her Gmail account. When the wife wasn’t home, Leon periodically read her mail.

When he discovered that she was going to go back to her ex-husband, they had a fight and he told her how he got this information.

The woman called the police and accused her husband of breaking into her email account. Despite their relationship, the prosecution insisted on 5 years for the husband for violating privacy laws. Lawyers estimate his chances of clearing himself of the charge as fairly low.

If Walker eventually gets convicted, an important precedent will be created that will be used by judges in similar cases in the future. And there can be a quite a few of them.

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