North Korean hackers charged in cyber scheme targeting Sony and world banks 

Three North Korean computer programmers have been charged with the crippling WannaCry attack that impacted the NHS and a wider worldwide scheme to conduct cyber attacks and financial crime to help fund Pyongyang. 

The US Department of Justice accused the men of extorting more than $1.3bn (£930m) in cash and cryptocurrency from banks and companies by creating fake cryptocurrency applications and blockchain platform. 

Officials said on Wednesday that the men belonged to a unit of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, an intelligence agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also referred to as Lazarus Group.

One of the men, Park Jin Hyok, was previously charged with allegedly attacking Sony Pictures in 2014, an apparent retaliation for The Interview, a comedy film which included the assassination of a DPRK leader.  The breach successfully knocked the company offline and resulted in a leak of several confidential Hollywood executive emails. The hackers also targeted AMC Theatres, which was scheduled to show the film and Mammoth Screen, which was producing a fictional series that portrayed the DPRK negatively. 

Prosecutors accused the men of numerous attacks including stealing money from banks across Asia and Africa by hacking their networks and sending fraudulent Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) messages and creating the WannaCry 2.0 ransomware which infected the NHS in 2017. 

They also claimed the men were responsible for the Marine Chain Token, which was marketed to investors in exchange for fractional ownership interests in shipping vessels. This allowed the DPRK to secretly fund itself from worldwide investors, circumventing US sanctions. 

Michael D’Ambrosio, Secret Service Assistant Director, said: “The individuals indicted today committed a truly unprecedented range of financial and cyber-crimes: from ransomware attacks and phishing campaigns, to digital bank heists and sophisticated money laundering operations.

“With victims strewn across the globe, this case shows yet again that the challenge of cybercrime is, and will continue to be, a struggle that can only be won through partnerships, perseverance, and a relentless focus on holding criminals accountable.”

6:03PM

Good evening!

That’s all from us, check back in tomorrow morning for live coverage of the best technology news. 

5:58PM

Europe says Reddit trading frenzy ‘could constitute market manipulation’ 

The European Securities and Markets Authority have warned retail investors that “organising or executing coordinated strategies to trade or place orders at certain conditions and times to move a share’s price could constitute market manipulation” and advised special care to those posting on social media as spreading false or misleading information could also fall foul of the law. 

Discussing the opportunity to buy or sell shares in a company is perfectly legal, it added. 

The regulator said it was continuing to analyse the stock market frenzy after Reddit traders pushed the price of GameStop and several other stocks sky high by encouraging others to buy. 

3:41PM

Blockchain.com raises $120m for its crypto wallets

London cryptocurrency start-up Blockchain.com, which is backed by Google’s GV fund, has raised $120m for its wallet technology. The digital coin start-up offers Bitcoin wallets and a cryptocurrency exchange service.

It says it has processed more than $620bn in transactions and has over 65 million wallets. It claims 28pc of all Bitcoin transactions since 2012 have taken place using its services.

Its chief executive, Peter Smith, said: “Paradigm shifts like crypto can feel to the world as though they happened overnight — but for those of us working day in and day out to build technology and innovation in crypto, this has been a long time coming. I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future, but there’s so much more to do.”

2:45PM

News Corp signs deal with Google for ‘significant payments’ for news

The Murdoch family’s News Corp has joined Google’s News Showcase product in exchange for what it calls “significant payments” by the tech giant.

The deal sees The Times and Sunday Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York, The Sun and several Australian titles all signed up to News Showcase.

The Google product will see publications paid to produce snippets of news and short extracts and digests that will appear in Google’s News product. The deals come as part of a $1bn commitment by Google over three years as part of the new product.

It also comes as Google faces pressure in Australia to bow to the country’s new News Media Bargaining Code. This would make Google pay for news links that appear in its search product. It has been in talks with the Australian government about the code and has threatened to pull its search product from the country entirely if it is passed.

Robert Thomson, Chief Executive of News Corp, said the agreement showed there should be a “premium for premium journalism”.

The Telegraph is also a partner of News Showcase in the UK.

2:25PM

‘Test the Boundaries of what is allowed by law’

The tech giant has been accused of testing the boundaries of regulations in India, even as politicians called for a crackdown on technology giants to protect small sellers and bricks and mortar retailers.

Reuters reports that nearly a third of Amazon’s sales came from just 33 merchants. Two other sellers, that accounted for a third of sales, had indirect equity stakes held by Amazon.

One internal slide, from 2014, gave the advice to “Test the Boundaries of what is allowed by law.”

The revelations are likely to fuel complaints against the technology giant that it has harmed small retailers while giving preferential treatment to a handful of big sellers on its e-commerce service.

Amazon said: “Facts communicate a different reality. Small businesses are increasingly embracing technology and finding success online.”

“As government policies have continued to evolve, we have consistently made the necessary changes to ensure compliance at all times.”

12:30PM

Apple’s emojis get representative

New emoji icons that will be available to Apple users are getting more diverse in its latest software update. In the beta version of iOS 14.5, soon to be released to iPhone users, several icons will get new skin tones and variants.

Among the changes is an emoji for a kissing couple and an emoji with a heart that will now have a range of skin tones, with users able to customise the colour for each character.

There will also be a heart mending icon, a woman with a beard, a a face exhaling and a face in clouds. 

A number of the emoji available to Apple users are being made available in more diverse options as part of a software update from the tech giant.

Apple confirmed several existing emoji have been updated too, with the headphones emoji now taking on the design of Apple’s AirPods Max and the icons depicting people climbing would now show all of them wearing helmets.

The broad policy around the look of emoji is regulated by the Unicode Consortium, an independent body tasked with overseeing the creation of emoji.

12:03PM

Top secret: £800m research agency exempted from FOI laws

The Government’s new equivalent to US research agency DARPA, which will be named the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (or Aria) is due to be announced as soon as tomorrow, The Times reports.

The agency will be responsible for pushing forward an agenda of high risk, high reward projects. It will also be exempted from Civil Service rules that are supposed to prevent investment in projects will little chance of success.

It is also due to be exempted from Freedom of Information laws to keep projects under wraps and prevent competitors from finding out details.

11:45AM

Did Brad Pitt join Clubhouse?

A recent room on Clubhouse had an unexpected visitor, a user going by the name of Brad Pitt with the handle @bradpitt. The user joined in a long conversation about climate change, until after several hours, another user finally challenged him: Are you really Brad Pitt.

According to Forbes, the Brad Pitt impersonator, Jacob Tran, started a chat on Clubhouse, without contributing, which had 3,000 listeners at one point. 

“Once enough people came up, I just made people moderators who had a lot to contribute and I didn’t say anything,” Tran said. “They just they started moderating the whole conversation. And people just kept joining who thought, ‘Oh, Brad Pitt is leading a climate change talk.’ I learned so much just being in the chat … I can’t believe how productive the conversations were.”

“I was pretty surprised that it went two-and-a-half hours without someone acknowledging [Brad],” Tran said. “People kept saying, like, ‘Oh, I just wanted to thank Brad for bringing me up.’ But nobody was ever like, ‘Brad, what do you think about this?’”

Tran says he simply took the handle of @BradPitt in an effort to claim an early Clubhouse account. It is not clear if he will be allowed to keep it.

10:42AM

ICYMI: Fortnite maker Epic takes Apple to European Commission

The maker of Fortnite has taken Apple to Europe’s regulators in a battle over commission fees paid through the App Store. Fortnite has long complained that Apple’s 30pc cut of transactions is stifling competition and hurting game developers.

It recently tried to bypass this by implementing a way for users to buy its in-game currency without paying Apple’s fees.

It has already been embroilled in legal battles with Apple in the UK, US and Australia. My colleague Margi Murphy has this report:

Epic Games filed an antitrust complaint to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition on Wednesday, claiming Apple had broken the law by controlling what apps can be installed on iPhones and iPads and “completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes”. Epic Games chief executive Tim Sweeney said: “We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field.”

Apple meanwhile, has countersued Epic in the US. You can read our full story here.

10:01AM

Bitcoin mining goes offline due to Texas storms

The big chill in Texas has Bitcoiners in a spin, sending their mining operations offline. The storms have claimed 20 lives and left millions without power.

Never ones to let an opportunity to make some cash go to waste, according to CoinDesk, some Bitcoin miners have been selling energy they had agreed to purchase from the local grids back to the network and booking profits. 

“Some bitcoin miners were able to capitalize on selling their unused energy back to the grid for a huge profit,” JP Baric, boss  of Texas-based crypto mining company MiningStore, said on Twitter.

Texas

A snow covered neighbourhood in Texas, which is experiencing a massive blackout

Credit:
Reuters

Some of the world’s largest Bitcoin mining companies have bases in Texas due to its cheap power supply.

You can read more on Bitcoin mining’s dirty secrets in my piece from last month.

9:24AM

Bitcoin price ‘looks unsustainable’, JP Morgan says

The incredible Bitcoin rally that has pushed its price over $50,000 – and as high as $51,000 today – looks shaky, according to bankers at JP Morgan.

The investment bank’s Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou wrote in a note on Tuesday the run “looks unsustainable”.

Analysts said that inflow from big institutions, such as the $1.5bn purchase by Tesla, could only account for a very limied amount of its $700bn rally. The bankers estimated that just $11bn had been driven by corporate investors.

“Movements since January this year appear to have been more influenced by speculative flows,” the analysts said.

It came as today Bitcoin continued to move higher, with a single coin now worth more than $51,000. The price of Bitcoin rose around 4.7pc over the last 24 hours, according to Coinmarketcap. 

8:58AM

Jeff Bezos is – for now – the world’s richest man

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has nipped in front of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk as the world’s richest man overnight.

According to real-time data from the Forbes billionaires list, Musk is now worth $173bn after his wealth slipped by $3.9bn as Tesla’s share price fell. Bezos, meanwhile, is worth around $190bn.

8:13AM

Amazon sued over working conditions in New York 

Online retail giant Amazon has been sued over its warehouse conditions by New York’s Attorney General, just days after it filed its own counter suit against the state.

New York’s top lawyer, Letitia James, sued Amazon over its Covid working conditions and allegedly retaliating against workers. The suit said: “Throughout the historic pandemic, Amazon has repeatedly and persistently failed to comply with its obligation to institute reasonable and adequate measures to protect its workers.

“Amazon has cut corners in complying with the particular requirements that would most jeopardize its sales volume and productivity rates.”

However, Amazon is not taking the claims lying down. In its own counter-filing, the tech giant said: “We don’t believe the Attorney General’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic.”

Amazon has faced protests at its Staten Island warehouse facility in New York state.

Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson said: “We care deeply about the health and safety of our employees, as demonstrated in our filing last week, and we don’t believe the Attorney General’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic.” 

7:30AM

Elon Musk’s other company

Mr Musk’s other company, SpaceX, has become the world’s biggest satellite launch service, with its Falcon reusable rocket boosters regularly delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and its Crew Dragon spacecraft completing its first human trip to the station last May.

It has also caught the eye of investors, raising $850m at a valuation of $74bn in a private funding round. As well as flying missions for Nasa and the US military, Musk has been hunting funds to fuel demand for its Starlink satellite constellation, which is planning to blanket the whole world in broadband satellites.

The remarkable success of SpaceX has led to a surge in interest in space flight, with investment channelled into space startups.

Early next year, it is expected to carry the first all-private astronaut crew to the ISS for Axiom Space, a Texas-based company that hopes to build the world’s first commercial space station.

7:26AM

Five things to start your day  

1) Banks seek advice on Bitcoin compliance as digital coin hits record high Top cryptocurrency compliance firm says the phone has been ringing off the hook after the cryptocurrency surged in price

2) Fortnite maker Epic Games takes Apple to European competition watchdog Standfirst here Standfirst here Standfirst here Standfirst here Standfirst here Standfirst here Standfirst here Standfirst here 

3) AI that creates fake child abuse images to catch criminals opens up ethical fears We are only just beginning to confront the problems posed as computer-generated images become ever more photo-realistic

4) Lack of wind turbine emoji will set back climate change debate, campaigners warn It comes ‘at the very time when we should be encouraging debate’, the groups said

5) Opinion: We have been staggeringly blind to China’s rare earth dominance China’s threatened export ban on rare earths is an almighty own goal for the West, writes Harry de Quetteville

Coming up today

9pm – Shopify, Twilio and Baidu report fourth quarter earnings

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