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Instagram says growth hackers are behind spate of fake Stories views



If you use Instagram  and have noticed a bunch of strangers watching your Stories in recent months — accounts that don’t follow you and seem to be Russian — well, you’re not alone.

Nor are you being primed for a Russian disinformation campaign. At least, probably not. But you’re right to smell a fake.

TechCrunch’s very own director of events, Leslie Hitchcock, flagged the issue to us — complaining of “eerie” views on her Instagram Stories in the last couple of months from random Russian accounts, some seemingly genuine (such as artists with several thousand followers) and others simply “weird” looking.

A thread on Reddit also poses the existential question: “Why do Russian Models (that don’t follow me) keep watching my Instagram stories?” (The answer to which is: Not for the reason you hope.)

Instagram told us it is aware of the issue and is working on a fix.

It also said this inauthentic activity is not related to misinformation campaigns but is rather a new growth hacking tactic — which involves accounts paying third parties to try to boost their profile via the medium of fake likes, followers and comments (in this case by generating inauthentic activity by watching the Instagram Stories  of people they have no real interest in in the hopes that’ll help them pass off as real and net them more followers).

Eerie is spot on. Some of these growth hackers probably have banks of phones set up where Instagram Stories are ‘watched’ without being watched. (Which obviously isn’t going to please any advertisers paying to inject ads into Stories… )

A UK social media agency called Hydrogen also noticed the issue back in June — blogging then that: “Mass viewing of Instagram Stories is the new buying followers of 2019”, i.e. as a consequence of the Facebook-owned social network cracking down on bots and paid-for followers on the platform.

So, tl;dr, squashing fakes is a perpetual game of whack-a-mole. Let’s call it Zuckerberg’s bane.

“Our research has found that several small social media agencies are using this as a technique to seem like they are interacting with the public,” Hydrogen also wrote, before going on to offer sage advice that: “This is not a good way to build a community, and we believe that Instagram will begin cracking down on this soon.”

Instagram confirmed to us it is attempting to crack down — saying it’s working to try to get rid of this latest eyeball-faking flavor of inauthentic activity. (We paraphrase.)

It also said that, in the coming months, it will introduce new measures to reduce such activity — specifically from Stories — but without saying exactly what these will be.

We also asked about the Russian element but Instagram was unable to provide any intelligence on why a big proportion of the fake Stories views seem to be coming from Russia (without any love). So that remains a bit of a mystery.

What can you do right now to prevent your Instagram Stories from being repurposed as a virtue-less signalling machine for sucking up naive eyeballs?

Switching your profile to private is the only way to thwart the growth hackers, for now.

Albeit, that means you’re limiting who you can reach on the Instagram platform as well as who can reach you.

When we suggested to Hitchcock she switch her account to private she responded with a shrug, saying: “I like to engage with brands.”


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Trump reportedly uses unsecured phone lines. Cybersecurity experts explain why those are ‘so easy to hack it’s scary.’




President Donald Trump reportedly uses unsecured phones for White House business, rather than encrypted phone services intended for top government officials, according to a recent Washington Post report .

Trump on phone
Trump on phone
  • Business Insider spoke to cybersecurity experts about how hackers can gain access to phone conversations on unsecured devices.
  • Unsecured phones are an easy target for hackers, according to the experts, who said they are “so easy to hack it’s scary.”

President Donald Trump made Hillary Clinton’s use of private email servers a hallmark of his campaign, but the president himself regularly conducts phone calls using unsecured devices, according to a new report from The Washington Post .

Call records released as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump show that he and his top advisors routinely used unsecured phones for White House business, a fact that several unnamed administration officials confirmed to the Post. Top government officials typically use encrypted phone services to protect calls or texts from being intercepted by hackers.

To put that revelation in context, Business Insider spoke to cybersecurity experts about the risks associated with unsecured phones.

Alex Heid, chief technology officer of Security Scorecard, said that unencrypted phone services are exceptionally easy to hack.

“In some cases, it’s as simple as walking into a cell phone tower, plugging in a laptop, and downloading everything,” Alex Heid said. “It’s generally so easy to hack its scary.”

Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute and a former cybersecurity advisor to the Obama Administration, said that gaining access to unsecured phone activity is well within the capabilities of sophisticated hackers.

“With enough time and focus, which we know that many malicious actors have, it’s certainly doable,” Todt said.

Here’s a breakdown of how hackers can gain access to unsecured phone activity and how encryption can protect against hacks, according to experts.

Encrypted phones have been the standard for top-ranking government officials dating back to World War II, when extensive technology was employed to protect against wiretapping.

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National Security Agency

Phone encryption became much less expensive with the advent of the internet. Most encrypted phone lines now use software called “voice over internet protocol” to shield against spying.

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Nam Y. Huh/AP

However, most standard phone services, including calls and texts, are “basically wide open,” according to Heid: “It’s unencrypted data stream that’s broadcast over the airways.”

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Scott Morgan/Reuters

“Hackers are constantly hacking telecom carriers,” according to Heid. “In some cases, it’s as simple as walking into a cell phone tower, plugging in a laptop, and downloading everything.”

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There are now a range of smartphone apps that provide encrypted calls and messaging services, including Signal, Wickr, and WhatsApp. The latter is used intermittently by White House officials, according to The Washington Post.

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The primary reason that people opt to use unsecured rather than encrypted phone services is because of convenience. “There’s always that trade-off between encryption and ease of use,” Heid said.

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There have been several instances of targeted phone hacking in the past year alone. One tactic, known as SIM swapping, involves fraudulently convincing a mobile carrier to transfer control of a phone number to a hacker’s device.

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Steve Kovach, Business Insider

“Mobile security is something that the government is still struggling to prioritize,” Todt said. “Given the use of smartphones across business and government use, we’ve got to figure it out.”

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AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin


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New Android bug targets banking apps on Google Play store




Labeled “StrandHogg,” the vulnerability discovered by the mobile security vendor Promon could give hackers access to users’ photos, contacts, phone logs, and more.

Android apps in Google’s Play Store have frequently been the target of malware designed to infect mobile devices and steal personal information from users. 

Google is then put in the position of playing clean up to remove the malicious apps and then repeating the process the next time such fraudulent apps appear. 

The latest malware vulnerability is one that affects all Android devices by targeting banking apps in an attempt to compromise user data and gain access to financial accounts.

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Discovered by Promon, the vulnerability dubbed StrandHogg allows malicious apps to pose as legitimate ones, giving hackers access to private SMS messages and photos, steal login credentials, track the movements of users, record phone conversations, and spy on people through the phone’s camera and microphone, according to a Promon press release posted on Monday.

Security researchers at Promon analyzing real malware that exploited this vulnerability discovered that all of the top 500 most popular apps had been at risk, affecting all versions of Android, including Android 10. As ranked by the app intelligence company 42 Matters, the list of 100 includes mostly popular and general apps across all types of categories

Specifically, Promon’s partner and security firm, Lookout, confirmed 36 malicious apps that exploited the flaw. Among them were variants of the BankBot banking trojan, which has been seen as early as 2017 and is one of the most widespread banking trojans around.

In response to Promon’s findings, Google has since removed the identified malicious apps from its Play store, according to a statement sent to BBC News and TechRepublic.

“We appreciate the researchers work, and have suspended the potentially harmful apps they identified,” Google said in its statement. “Google Play Protect detects and blocks malicious apps, including ones using this technique. Additionally, we’re continuing to investigate in order to improve Google Play Protect’s ability to protect users against similar issues.” 

In an overview page, Promon provided details on the StrandHogg vulnerability, explaining its impact and the different ways that hackers can exploit it.

As Promon describes it, StrandHogg allows a malicious app masquerading as a legitimate one to ask for certain permissions, including access to SMS messages, photos, GPS, and the microphone.

Unsuspecting users approve the requests, thinking they’re granting permission to a legitimate app and not one that’s fraudulent and malicious. When the user enters the login credentials within the app, that information is immediately sent to the attacker, who can then sign in and control sensitive apps.

The vulnerability itself lies in the multitasking system of Android, Promon’s marketing and communication director, Lars Lunde Birkeland, said. The exploit is based on an Android control setting called “taskAffinity,” which allows any app, including malicious ones, to freely assume any identity in the multitasking system, Birkeland said.

A specific malware sample analyzed by Promon was not on Google Play but was instead installed through dropper apps and hostile downloaders available on Google’s mobile app store, according to Promon. Such apps either have or pretend to have the features of games, utilities, and other popular apps but actually install additional apps that can deploy malware or steal user data.

“We have tangible proof that attackers are exploiting StrandHogg in order to steal confidential information,” Promon’s chief technology officer, Tom Lysemose Hansen, said in a statement on the overview page. “The potential impact of this could be unprecedented in terms of scale and the amount of damage caused because most apps are vulnerable by default and all Android versions are affected.”

Though Google removed the 36 exploited apps, Birkeland said that to the best of Promon’s knowledge, the vulnerability itself has not been fixed in any version of Android, including Android 10. Google also tries to safeguard its app store through its Google Play Protect security suite, but dropper apps continue to appear on the store. Often slipping under the radar, these apps can be downloaded millions of times before they’re caught and removed.

“Google Play is usually considered a safe haven for downloading software,” Birkeland said. “Unfortunately, nothing is 100% safe, and from time to time malware distributors manage to sneak their apps into Google Play.”

Sam Bakken, a senior product marketing manager with the anti-fraud company OneSpan, also weighed in on the threat posed by such vulnerabilities as StrandHogg.

“As you might imagine, criminals salivate over the monetization potential in stolen mobile banking credentials and access to one-time-passwords sent via SMS,” Bakken said in a statement. 

“Promon’s recent findings make the vulnerability as severe as it’s ever been. Consumers and app developers alike were exposed to various types of fraud as a result for four year,” he continued. “In addition, now, at least 36 examples of malware attacking the vulnerability as far back as 2017 have been identified—some being variants of the notorious Bankbot Trojan. This goes to show you that attackers are aware of the vulnerability and actively exploiting it to steal banking credentials and money.”


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How to move Google Authenticator to your new phone for added security




You can move Google Authenticator to a new phone so that your new device can gain an additional level of security through two-step authentication.

Unlike the traditional method of using only a single password, two-step authentication provides greater security for your accounts by requiring two steps to log into your Google apps.

Google Authenticator is an app that assists in two-step authentication for your Google account, and allows you to use your phone as a second step in confirming your identity before accessing your account.

If you’ve used Google Authenticator before and recently got a new phone, you’ll need to move the Google Authenticator app to your new phone so that it can be used for two-step authentication. Follow the steps below to do so.

How to move Google Authenticator to your new phone

1. On your new Android or iPhone , download and install the Google Authenticator app.

How to move Google Authenticator to new phoneChrissy Montelli/Business Insider

2. Using a PC or Mac , open Google’s webpage for two-step authentication and log in. When it becomes an option, click on “Move to a different phone.”

3. Click on either “Android” or “iPhone” based on what kind of phone you are using, then click “Continue.” The next screen should show a barcode or QR code.

4. Open the Google Authenticator app on your new phone and follow the on-screen instructions. When you are prompted, tap on “Scan a barcode,” and scan the barcode/QR code shown on your computer screen.

How to move Google Authenticator to new phoneChrissy Montelli/Business Insider

5. After you scan the barcode, a six-digit code should appear on the Google Authenticator app. This code changes every few minutes for security purposes. Type the code into the corresponding field on your computer and click “Verify.”

How to move Google Authenticator to new phoneChrissy Montelli/Business Insider

Google Authenticator should now be set up on your new phone, enabling you to use it for two-step account verification.


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