FBI Can Remotely Activate Android Smartphone And Laptop Mics, WSJ Reports


The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the FBI employs a number of high-tech hacker tactics in its efforts to round up information on suspects, including the ability to remotely activate microphones on Android devices and notebook computers, according to one of its sources who is described as a “former U.S. official.” These and other tools are brought to bear in cases related to organized crime, counterterrorism or child pornography, according to the WSJ report.

The tools it uses are both internally and externally sourced, with some coming from the private sector. Hacking at the FBI under court order has gradually increased, as law enforcement officials try to find ways to circumvent new communication tech that’s more resistant to traditional surveillance methods like wiretapping. The specifics of its methods are not generally brought to light in public, but a warrant from earlier this year revealed that one request involved using a computer’s built-in camera to take photos of a suspect without their knowledge. The request in that case was denied.

According to the WSJ’s source, the FBI resorts to these tactics when they’re out of options, and “don’t have any other choice.” The tools used to gather the data are often installed remotely, using essentially phishing style links that injects essentially Trojan software when clicked by a suspect under surveillance. They can also be installed via physical access and a USB drive, the report says, and in all cases the FBI tries to ensure only “relevant data” are gathered by its hacking efforts, through the use of a screening team that checks for relevancy before handing information off to investigators working the case.

The news that the FBI employs hacker tactics on occasion to gather data about potential suspects is not new, but the specifics of how it goes about it, and how it might be able to employ a user’s own hardware to record conversations remotely is definitely going to raise some eyebrows, especially in light of the attention now focused on digital rights and privacy thanks to the leaks around the NSA’s PRISM and XKeyscore programs. In theory, the devices could even be activated to eavesdrop on an in-person conversation with a potential suspect who doesn’t even own an Android device, perhaps from the pocket of a friend who does. PRISM reportedly involves a number of prominent Internet companies, and Xkeyscore seems to allow the U.S. security agency unprecedented access to information about emails, chat history and more, according to information leaked by former U.S. government security contractor Edward Snowden.

In this case, it sounds like the FBI’s tools might involve Android and desktop PC malware, so Google wouldn’t need to be complicit for claims about using Android device mics remotely to be accurate. We’ve reached out to both the FBI and Google for comment, but have yet to hear back as of press time.

TechCrunch » android

Bitcasa Partners With Samsung To Offer Unlimited Cloud Storage On All Of Its Windows 8 Devices

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Today Bitcasa, Disrupt Battlefield finalist, has announced a partnership with Samsung to offer Bitcasa’s infinite storage service to all Windows 8 devices sold by Samsung, save for smartphones. This includes tablets, desktops and laptops.

The company has had this partnership in the works for almost a year, according to founder Tony Gauda, but wanted to wait to share the news until consumers could actually go purchases these devices with Bitcasa pre-installed.

For those of you who haven’t heard yet, Bitcasa is a software service that opens up your hardware to have infinite storage in the cloud, with no lag to watch a stored movie or play a song. It works like this: Bitcasa only saves data that is unique to you, while saving only one version of all the redundant data in its system. You might think that the unique data outweighs the redundant, but it’s actually on the contrary.

As it stands now, Bitcasa charges users $ 10/month or $ 99/year for its infinite cloud storage, but users who purchase a pre-loaded Samsung device will get two free months of infinite storage space, along with 20GB for free over the lifetime of the device.

But what does this mean for Bitcasa’s revenue?

The company already has a huge influx of users interested in hopping on the service, as evidenced by the total of 30 petabytes of data stored on the site. But partnerships with major brands offers a more B2B-focused business model. This allows Bitcasa to focus on perfecting the service as opposed to bringing in new users, as the big hardware companies can now do that for them.

According to Gauda, Bitcasa has one of the highest free to paid conversion rates in the industry (without getting into too much detail), “but so many people don’t know we exist,” he added. In other words, the distribution here is critical.

Though Gauda didn’t specify the exact terms of the Samsung deal, he did explain that talks have already begun with other major brands to distribute the Bitcasa service. The idea is to have manufacturers spend less on their own hard drives and instead pay a small fee for every device sold with Bitcasa pre-loaded.

If you’re interested in checking out Bitcasa, head over here.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

Google Will Soon Let You Locate, Ring and Remote Wipe Your Android Phone From Its Upcoming Web-Based Device Manager


Apple users have long been able to use iOS’s built-in device locator and remote wiping features, but Android users had to resort to third-party applications. That’s changing soon. Google today announced that it’ll launch a new Android Device Manager later this month that will allow you to locate and ring your misplaced (or stolen) device and perform a remote wipe so your data doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

The service, Google says, will be available on devices running Android 2.2 or up and judging from today’s announcement, the Android Device Manager site will feature a dedicated area for pinging your lost device. It’s not clear what else users will be able to do on the new Device Manager site, however.

Overall, of course, this new service looks a lot like Apple’s Find My iPhone feature. You’ll be able to make your phone ring at maximum volume (just in case it’s stuck between your couch cushions), for example. The locator feature will highlight your phone’s location on a map (no surprise there) and remote wiping just takes a few clicks. Unlike on Apple’s platform, though, it doesn’t look like users will be able to send messages to their lost phones or use something akin to Apple’s remote lock tool.

There is nothing really new here, of course, and some OEMs already offered some of these features on their Android phone, but Android users will sure be happy to hear that Google is finally making its own tool available to its users.

TechCrunch » android

Samsung’s Smartwatch Shows Up In Trademark Filing As “Galaxy Gear”


Samsung filed a newly-discovered trademark with the USPTO dated July 29 for the Galaxy Gear, a name for “wearable digital electronic devices in the form of a wristwatch, wrist band or bangle capable of providing access to the Internet and for sending and receiving phone calls, electronic mails and messages.” It’s as clear a move as Apple applying for an iWatch trademark in various countries around the world that the Korean company is working on a smartwatch.

Previous reports have said that Samsung is working on a smartwach device, and technical patents filed for by the company suggest it’s looking at designs with flexible displays, though that tech might still be a few years out according to sources in the display manufacturing industry. Even so, the trademark filing indicates Samsung is serious about staking out ground in the wearable market, whether or not it’s ready to bring those products to consumers just yet.

A Samsung smartwatch would likely be an Android-based affair to partner up with the company’s line of Galaxy Android-based smartphones and tablets, but judging by the wording of the patent it might be capable of acting alone to perform a number of functions, without necessarily requiring a smartphone tether. Even if it does require a smartphone to be connected, the Gear looks like a way for Amazon to stay in the game should Apple come out with its much-rumored iWatch.

The iWatch has been rumored for a long while now, but Apple started securing trademarks for the name in Japan, Mexico and other countries last month, even though it faces competition from others who already hold the mark in other key markets. Apple has been onboarding new staff to tackle the iWatch project, according to a recent report from the Financial Times, and plans to bring the device to store shelves sometime in 2014 if all goes as planned. This would ring true with Apple CEO Tim Cook’s repeated statements that Apple has a lot of “new products” in the works for the end of this year and throughout next.

2014 could be the year of the smartwatch if Samsung is indeed gearing up for a release to anticipate, coincide with or shortly follow Apple’s own unveiling. This is a new and relatively untested market, however, so first mover advantage won’t necessarily carry the day; we’ll have to wait and see what each company’s design brings to the table in terms of generating broad consumer appeal for what has so far been the very niche device category of wearable tech.

TechCrunch » Gadgets

A Tag-Team Look At The New Nexus 7


Darrell: Google recently updated its Nexus 7 tablet, with a new design and brand new specs including a more powerful processor and much better screen. The device also has the distinction of being among the first in line for new Android updates, so it’s an early-adopter’s delight. But despite all the new, the Nexus 7 doesn’t really dramatically change the tablet space; it slots in more or less where the original version did, as a tablet that’s good for the price but unlikely to provoke any passion.

Chris: Well, maybe it doesn’t for you. But for a market teeming with people who are itching to buy tablets over more traditional computers, the new Nexus 7 represents a major step forward over the original without a corresponding increase in price. I suspect that a considerable chunk of people are going to look at this thing, mull their options, and take the plunge. And, you know what? They could do a lot worse.

Darrell: If anyone gets this instead of a computer, they’re in for a rough surprise.

Darrell: The Nexus 7 has a lot going for it on paper, not least of which is the super high resolution display. The 7-inch screen has 1980×1200 resolution, making it officially the sharpest knife in the drawer, if the drawer is filled with tablets and sharpest knife here refers to sharpest screen.

That’s not all that the Nexus 7 brings to the table; its other big selling point is price. In the U.S., the 16GB version retails for $ 229, which is $ 30 more than its predecessor, but still $ 100 cheaper than the iPad mini with the same amount of onboard storage and wireless connectivity. So that’s double the screen resolution, for a third less money.

Chris: Yeah, that’s fine, get on with it.

Darrell: It’s also smaller and lighter than the iPad mini (and has a smaller display, too). You’d think that would give it portability/usability benefits, but oddly it doesn’t. I can’t help but shake the feeling that the Nexus 7 is larger than the iPad mini, even though objective measures prove that isn’t the case. Is it the gargantuan top and bottom bezels? The slightly thicker case? Hard to tell exactly, but ergonomically it’s just not up to scratch with the Apple tablet.

Chris: Anyone ever tell you you’re sort of a tablet snob? Sure, it’s no iPad mini, but are you shelling out iPad mini money for this thing? No, you’re not. I agree that those bezels are huge and they make the Nexus 7 feel strangely long when you hold it vertically, but I certainly wouldn’t call them dealbreakers. Holding this thing is like holding a slightly heavier Paperwhite Kindle, which is most definitely a good thing — there’s definitely some heft there but I find it more reassuring than anything. The soft touch finish on the 7′s rear is a welcome addition too, as it helps you get a better grip on things if you’re playing games or furiously swiping through one of Darrell’s many Apple patent articles.

Darrell: Pricing arguments start to feel hollow when the difference is $ 100, and it’s only $ 50 if you go with Apple Certified Refurbished products. The Nexus 7 was a pricing bomb when it first hit and the full-sized iPad starting at $ 399 was the alternative from Apple, but no one’s going hungry over the difference now, so you can stop with the cries of class bias.

Darrell: It feels cheaper, too, but that’s because it is cheaper. And it doesn’t feel as cheap as some other third-party Android tablets I’ve held, so the build quality is actually a net plus for the new Nexus 7. Also top and bottom speakers make for better sound orientation when watching movies, but they don’t beat the sound quality on the iPad mini’s two bottom-edge stereo speakers.

Chris: I’ve got to give it you on that one. The stereo speakers that Asus loaded this thing up with produce reasonably loud, crisp sound, but they do fall flat when compared to the sort of sound that the iPad mini’s downward-facing pair can pump out. That’s honestly quite a shame considering that 7-inch 1920×1200 display is pretty great for taking in a mobile movie or two.

Darrell: This Nexus 7 comes with Android 4.3 (though you might need to update out of the box to get it up to speed), which brings a few new features for users including restricted access for multiple user profiles! Exciting! … sort of. If you have lots of mischievous children who share your device. Or if you want to keep your tablet porn habit hidden from your loved ones. It’s a nice addition, but Google certainly is not going to sell any tablets on the strength of Android 4.3 alone, unless dev shops are looking for new testing devices to cover their bases.

We’re not going to talk about cameras because if you’re buying a tablet based on its picture- or video-taking abilities you’re doing it wrong.

Chris: I’ll expound a bit since Darrell’s being sort of a grump — neither the 5-megapixel camera nor its 2-megapixel front-facing brother managed to produce anything worth writing home about. They’ll certainly do in a pinch if you’ve got absolutely nothing else on hand that could do the job, but you’ll definitely want to whip out your phone instead when the urge to snap selfies becomes too much to resist.

Darrell: Don’t listen to Chris: If it’s a choice between taking a pic with your tablet and missing the moment, you’ll always have your memories.

As for the other aspects of the Nexus 7′s performance, it’s absolutely fine in most cases, with some slowdown in Chrome when scrolling that’s a little disconcerting. Overall, nothing to write home about, but no problems that would annoy the average user to the point of making them want to return the device, either. Adequate, in other words.

Chris: Some people maybe nonplussed by the Nexus 7′s spec sheet since it isn’t loaded up with the absolute latest and greatest chipsets, but its 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and 2GB of RAM kept things chugging along with a minimum of headaches. I’m not much of a mobile gamer, but I didn’t notice any lag or performance issues while putzing around in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City or losing at Riptide GP. And loading up and playing several high-definition films (that I, uh, own) didn’t present many issues for the 7 either. There was the occasional visual stutter, but that’s at least partially because most of the video player apps I use haven’t been optimized for Android 4.3 yet.

And there’s the battery, which has actually shrunk a bit since the last Nexus 7. I’ve been able browse web pages, fire up non-graphics intensive apps, answer emails, and basically mess around for about a day and a half before having to recharge. Loading up those videos definitely takes a toll on things though (especially if you’ve got that screen brightness cranked up) — I generally managed to get between six and seven hours of non-stop video going before everything went dark.

Darrell: The Nexus 7 is good for a few, very specific things: it makes an excellent e-reader; if you like digital comics they look amazing on this screen; and if you’re into acts of piracy such as torrenting it’s much easier to accomplish on Android than on iOS without getting a proper computer involved. But ultimately the Nexus 7’s screen isn’t enough to lure me away from the iPad mini permanently; if anything, it has only whetted my appetite for a Retina iPad mini, which indications suggest we’ll probably see before the end of the year.

Chris: I’d characterize it a little differently — the new Nexus 7 is a great generalist tablet. It’s reasonably handsome (those bezels aside), it can hold its own when it comes to pure horsepower, and that price tag can be awfully hard to resist. Is it a perfect tablet? Obviously not, but it’s definitely a worthy purchase for first-time tablet owners or people who want a hardy companion to throw in a bag every day.

TechCrunch » android