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Connected devices will remain vulnerable to hackers until the companies that make them are forced to provide minimum levels of security



connected devices will remain vulnerable to hackers

Despite the fact that barely a week seems to pass these days without reports emerging of a newly-discovered Internet of Things (IoT)-related security vulnerability, governments and regulators across the globe have consistently failed to force companies that manufacture connected devices to make their products more resilient to cyber attacks. As a consequence, these firms are still able to bring products to market having paid scant regard as to how easily they might be hacked. And who can blame them?

If IoT device producers are not compelled by law to make sure their devices will not leave users vulnerable to being targeted by cyber criminals, it should come as no surprise when they fail to invest the significant amounts of money that would be required to make their products more secure. While this should seem quite obvious, lawmakers the world over have done little but dither when it comes to legislating over a threat that many analysts agree poses a significant danger to consumers. With some experts suggesting there could be as many as one trillion devices connected to the internet by 2025, the time has come to force connected device makers to get their house in order.

While some governments do pay lip service to the problem, few appear to have grasped the importance of moving quickly to ensure that the growing number of connected devices people are using are safe. In some cases, this is not just about protecting consumers’ personal information and their banking details. If hackers are able to gain access to connected cars or online medical devices, lives could be at risk. For their part, lawmakers in the US have this week been considering how to make the IoT more secure. Representatives from device makers told the Senate Commerce Committee Security Subcommittee that they should be permitted to continue with a system that allows them to work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology on voluntary baseline security standards rather than face government legalisation that would compel them to make their devices safer for users. But as Democrats sitting on the committee pointed out, it is clear to see that this approach is failing to produce results anything like quickly enough.

In the UK, the British government has announced plans that could force companies that make IoT devices to place labels on their products that would tell consumers how secure they are. British lawmakers have also said they will consult on forcing connected device manufacturers to build a minimum level of security into their products. Back in February, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute attempted to establish a security baseline for IoT consumer products, which it said would provide a basis for future connected device certification programmes. The organisation laid out 13 recommendations that it said would make such products safer, but owing to the fact that these are not legally enforceable, they amount to little more than a template for best practice.

It is now passed the point where it had to be asked how difficult this can be. Lawmakers have been aware of the growing threat that insecure connected devices pose for the best part of half a decade, but have proved themselves to be wholly unwilling or unable to force companies that manufacture these products to make security a priority. Meanwhile, hackers continue to have a field day exploiting the millions of poorly-secured IoT products that are flooding into consumers’ possession. Last month, online security firm Palo Alto Networks revealed that a recently-discovered variant of the Mirai malware was attacking a wider range of IoT devices, allowing hackers to create a botnet that could be used to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Elsewhere in April, Security researcher Paul Marrapese said that hundreds of thousands of IoT devices including baby monitors and smart doorbells have serious vulnerabilities that allow hackers to hijack them and spy on their owners. Marrapese claimed affected products were using peer-to-peer (P2P) features that allow users to connect to their devices the moment they come online.

In many cases, he myriad IoT vulnerabilities that are currently being discovered with such alarming regularity would not occur in the first place if device makers had been forced to ensure their products were robust enough to withstand the unwanted attention of hackers. Unfortunately, as things stand at present, none of this is likely to change for the better any time soon. Until governments across the world are bold enough to accept that allowing technology firms to self-regulate when it comes to security simply does not work, the willingness of these companies to cut corners where their customers’ online safety is concerned will continue to be all that cyber criminals need to successfully exploit the exponential growth of the IoT.

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Drug consumption rooms are a vital harm reduction tool that can help save addicts’ lives



drug consumption rooms

New data published last week revealed that Scotland has become the drug death capital of the European Union. Not only does Scotland suffer the most drug-related fatalities per capita than any other country across the 28-nation bloc, it also has a drug death rate higher than that of the US, the figures showed. According to data relating to drug deaths across the country released by National Records of Scotland, 1,187 drug-related deaths were recorded in the country last year, which was 253 (27%) up on those recoded in 2017. This was the highest number of drug-related deaths registered in Scotland since comparable records began back in 1996, and more than double the figure for 2008 (574).

While it has been noted that different countries use different methods to calculate drug deaths, and that the Scottish government includes incidents such as fatal car accidents in which the consumption of drugs was a contributing factor in its drug death numbers, the new statistics have quite rightly been met with alarm, and have raised questions as to why this might be happening, not to mention what can be done about it  The publication of the figures has renewed calls for drug consumption rooms, or overdose prevention centres, to be set up in locations such as Glasgow, which accounted for the largest drug death rate in the country last year. A cross-party group of MPs is now attempting to persuade the UK government to follow other countries’ examples by building such centres, noting that they have brought “good public health results” and an “absence of the feared negative consequences” in locations in which they have been set up to date, such as Denmark, Germany, Canada and Australia.

Drug consumption rooms, or “shooting galleries” as they are often referred to colloquially, offer addicts a safe, hygienic and secure environment in which to take their narcotics. As opposed to injecting their substance of choice on the street or in a squat, addicts can use consumption rooms to take drugs under medical supervision while being provided with clean paraphernalia such as needles to help them do so. Not only does this mean they will be less likely to suffer an infection or contract a disease such as HIV or hepatitis than they might otherwise be, drug consumption rooms also keep vulnerable users off the streets, where they can suffer abuse including serious violent and sexual assault.

On top of this, any addict who accidentally overdoses will stand a much better chance of receiving the medical attention they need if they do so in a drug consumption room as opposed to some dirty side street. But while drug consumption rooms have been operating successfully in a number of countries for more than 30 years, the UK government appears reluctant to introduce them in Britain, despite evidence suggesting they are effective when it comes to harm reduction, and have not resulted in social issues in the areas in which they have been set up.

The Scottish government is keen to build these types of facilities, but has faced opposition from Westminster, which has the final say over such matters. The UK government believes that the establishment of drug consumption rooms would allow for a number of criminal offences to take place, arguing that there is “no legal framework for the provision of drug consumption rooms and there are no plans to introduce them”. Campaigners in favour of drug consumption rooms argue that nobody is known to have died while using one, pointing to evidence that they are particularly effective at reaching vulnerable addicts who seldom have contact with public health service providers. Research also suggests that supervised fix rooms have resulted in users reporting lower levels of risky injecting behaviour, such as sharing or repeatedly reusing needles.

However Scotland’s drug death statistics are recorded, and whether or not their relationship with those of other nations are down to methodology, it is clear that the status quo simply is not working, and is if anything only making matters worse. While it would be naïve to suggest that drug consumption rooms are a magic bullet, a compelling amount of evidence now suggests that they can be effective when it comes to harm production, particularly among the most vulnerable substance abusers. It may be the case that the UK government does not currently have the legal framework required to legislate for the establishment of these types of facilities to be built in Scotland and elsewhere, but lives could be saved and vulnerable people protected if it moved swiftly to introduce laws that would allow it to do just that.

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How phone fraudsters are scamming people while pretending to be government officials



pretending to be government officials

Law enforcement agencies and anti-fraud bodies across the globe spend a great deal of time and effort attempting to educate members of the public about phone fraud. Despite this, incidents involving consumers being scammed in these types of plots remain relatively high, even though people are routinely warned not to hand over any personal or financial information when they are cold called. In the majority of cases, anybody who deals with their finances online or uses telephone banking services will have come across multiple warnings regarding the potential perils of inadvertently handing over their passwords or agreeing with a cold caller to have money paid into a holding account in the event of an alleged fraud. Consequently, it can sometimes be difficult to have sympathy for people who allow themselves to be conned in these circumstances. It can be a different story however when a fraudster calls up pretending to be from a government agency.

The majority of people will have had at least some experience of dealing with the financial institutions with which they have relationships over the phone, often to the degree that they would be able to tell if something were amiss if they were called by a fraudster pretending to be from any such firm. Conversely, far fewer members of the public are used to routinely dealing with government agencies that might have reason to contact them, and would likely be less than familiar with what to expect from a call from somebody purporting to be a public official. This is a fact that phone fraudsters are able to take full advantage of.

At the beginning of this month, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed that complaints to its Consumer Sentinel Network about government imposter scams reached record levels this spring. The consumer protection agency noted an increase in the number of phone scams that involved fraudsters pretending to be from official agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or some other government department. In May alone, the FTC said it received around 46,600 complaints relating to this type of fraud, and noted that some victims are being threatened with arrest if they refuse to hand over fictitious back-tax payments. In some cases, fraudsters are using sophisticated “number spoofing” technology that makes it look to victims as though they are calling from official government phone lines. Some scammers are even demanding that victims hand over their payment in the form of gift cards, which the FTC said should be the perfect giveaway that a fraud is taking place.

Meanwhile in the UK, the BBC last week revealed that organised scammers are taking advantage of loopholes in the British government’s new Universal Credit welfare system to profit from plunging jobless people into debt. The fraudsters approach unemployed people while pretending to be government workers and offer to help them apply for welfare benefits. After taking down their personal and banking information, the scammers apply for emergency loans in the names of their victims, taking the money and leaving the benefit claimants they target laden with the subsequent debt. The BBC found that the criminal networks behind the scam are using social media to attract victims, setting up Facebook pages with titles such as Gov Grants Same Day, Same Day Grant, Discretionary Budgeting Grant and Same Day Grant Payment. In a separate scam, fraudsters are contacting UK taxpayers by phone and threatening them with legal action or even jail if they fail to hand over on-the-spot fines of many thousands of pounds.

Chinese nationals are routinely targeted in these types of scams, with organised criminal networks operating illegal call centres in multiple locations around the world dedicated to contacting potential victims who originate from China. In some cases, these gangs have been known to call people they have already targeted in past scams while posing as police officers in order to convince them to hand over more money under the pretence that a payment is required before an investigation into the previous fraud can be launched. Just this week, police in Australia issued a warning about a telephone fraud conspiracy targeting the country’s Chinese community, particularly international students. In several “complex social engineering fraud and telephone scams”, the criminal networks behind these extortion plots call potential victims pretending to be from a range of official agencies. In one particularly sad example of the way phone fraudsters target Chinese nationals, it was reported back in 2016 that a prospective university student from Shandong province had died of a heart attack after she was conned out of her tuition fees. Fraudsters contacted the 18-year-old pretending to be from the “education ministry” and convinced her to transfer the money to a bank account under their control.

In many cases, people who fall victim to scams such as these will stand little chance of getting their money back, leaving them facing significant financial hardship. The sad reality of the matter is though, that while law enforcement agencies do all they can to raise awareness of this type of phone fraud, the scammers who perpetrate it will  continue to profit all the while they are able to find vulnerable victims who fear getting into any type of trouble with authority.

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Why organised criminal networks are moving into anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs



criminal networks are moving into anabolic steroids

An extraordinary number of people these days put an inordinate amount of time, money and effort into the way they look. In many cases, it would seem, they do so largely on account of worries over how they might appear to their followers on social media. Evidence suggests that a growing number of these image-obsessed individuals are increasingly turning to anabolic steroids and other cosmetic drugs such as fat-burning pills and tanning injections in order to achieve the appearance they desire, despite the huge amount of harm these substances can cause. Alarmingly, use of anabolic steroids has been rising in countries such as the UK for several years, with one study published in 2018 revealing that a million Britons had taken them solely to enhance their appearance rather than their sporting performance.

Similar patterns have been noted in Australia in recent years, while in the US, it has been reported that steroid abuse has been becoming more of a problem among teenagers. Although often associated with young men who are keen to bulk up, Scottish experts cautioned back in 2017 that middle-aged men were increasingly turning to the drugs in a bid to make themselves look younger, in spite of the potential health risks.

As anabolic steroids are of limited medical use and are typically only available on prescription in most countries, the majority of people who wish to take them must get hold of them illegally, which has led to the illicit trade in such drugs becoming more attractive to organised criminal networks operating in numerous countries. The extent to which crime gangs have become involved in the sports doping market was revealed earlier this week when Europol announced that an operation it led had been responsible for the disruption of 17 organised crime networks involved in the production and trafficking of counterfeit and smuggled medicines such as steroids.

Operation Viribus, which involved law enforcement agencies from 33 countries, resulted in the location and shutdown of nine illicit doping production laboratories, the seizure of almost 24 tonnes of raw steroid powder, and the arrest of 234 suspects. Europol said intelligence gathered during the operation showed that organised criminal networks are shipping huge quantities of steroids into EU member states to cater for growing demand, and that smaller players are ordering shipments of the drugs from countries such as China to sell in gyms.

It is not difficult to see why organised crime groups have seen the illicit trade in steroid-like drugs as a golden opportunity. Aside from the apparent growing popularity of such substances, sports doping laboratories are relatively cheap and easy to set up, while the knowledge required to produce these types of drugs in large quantities can be acquired by almost anybody online, regardless of their knowledge of chemistry. On top of this, the penalties for trafficking or distributing anabolic steroids and similar drugs are lighter in many countries than those for dealing in substances such as cocaine and heroin.

Just weeks before the results of Operation Viribus were made public, Europol revealed that most of the counterfeiting that affects member states is carried out by professional criminal organisations, and that these networks were increasingly producing a wider range of fake medicines, including performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids and doping substances. In several EU countries, law enforcement authorities have recently made more than 20 seizures of 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP), a toxic chemical that is sometimes sold as a so-called “fat burner”. Meanwhile back in October of last year, Interpol said anabolic steroids and slimming pills had been among 500 tonnes of fake medicines it had seized during an operation targeting illicit pharmaceuticals in 116 countries.

Only last month, a man from London was convicted for his role in a £40 million ($49.12 million) steroid smuggling conspiracy that was said to have been the largest of its type ever disrupted globally. Gurjaipal Dhillon, 65, who is due to be sentenced later this month, was found guilty of acting as a fixer for the group by arranging dozens of unlicensed shipments of drugs from India into Europe, where they were eventually sold onto body builders on the black market. With reports of smaller but similar conspiracies emerging in countries such as Canada, the US, Israel and Ireland, evidence suggests that organised criminal gangs have become wise to the large amounts of money that can be made by trafficking these drugs, and the relatively light punishment they might face if they are caught doing so.

With modern culture across the globe becoming more image obsessed, and with people seemingly becoming increasingly willing to go to more extreme lengths to achieve the look they believe they must present to the world, it seems likely that the illicit market for steroids and other performance enhancing drugs will only grow over the short to medium term. This expanding market will inevitably continue to attract the attention of both large and small organised criminal groups, which will happily seek to meet the demand for such substances, regardless of the devastating effect they can have on users’ physical and mental health.

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