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Top 10 crime, national security and law stories of 2021

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Top 10 crime, national security and law stories of 2021

The intelligence services and the government have become increasingly vocal in campaigns for access to the contents of the public’s encrypted messages on Facebook, WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services.

Government and industry attempts to develop a technical solution that will both preserve the integrity of communications and allow the state to bulk scan messages for criminal content have floundered.

Apple suspended its plans to install software on smart phones to automatically scan and report child abuse material in messages before they are encrypted. Top computer scientists and cryptographers had condemned the scheme as unworkable, vulnerable to abuse and a step towards bulk surveillance without warrant or suspicion. The former CEO of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, weighed-in to argue that end-to-end encryption must be permitted unless a technical compromise can be found that is acceptable to the tech industry and cryptography experts.

In practice, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have turned to “equipment interference” (also known as Computer Network Exploitation or hacking), to bypass end-to-end encryption altogether.

Police forces in the UK, Europe and the US collaborated in three major operations to hack into encrypted phone networks used by organised crime groups, leading to thousands of arrests world-wide.

The use of equipment interference to access encrypted phone messages has far reaching implications for the future use of intercept evidence in court.

For the past 65 years, the UK has banned the use of intercept evidence in court hearings. Following a legal decision in February, intercept evidence obtained through “equipment interference” can now be placed before juries. 

1. EncroChat: Appeal court finds ‘digital phone tapping’ admissible in criminal trials

Judges have decided that communications collected by French and Dutch police from the encrypted phone network EncroChat using software “implants” are admissible evidence in British courts.

UK law prohibits law enforcement agencies from using evidence obtained from interception in criminal trials, but three judges found on 5 February 2021 that material gathered by French and Dutch investigators and passed to the UK’s National Crime Agency were lawfully obtained through “equipment interference”.

“Today’s verdict implies that intercepting, or ‘tapping’ – copying other people’s live private calls and messages – has no clear meaning in the digital age,” said Duncan Campbell, who acted as a forensic expert in the case for defendants.

2. Police crack world’s largest cryptophone network as criminals swap EncroChat for Sky ECC

When the French gendarmerie, Dutch police and the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) infiltrated the EncroChat encrypted phone network last summer, organised crime groups around the world opted to switch to a new phone supplier.

That supplier was Sky ECC, now the largest supplier of crypto communications worldwide, with 70,000 customers.

Sky ECC bills itself as the “most secure messaging platform you can buy” and is so confident of the impregnability of its systems that it offers a handsome reward for anyone who can break the encryption of one of its phones.

But in a re-run of last year’s French and Dutch operation against the EncroChat encrypted phone network, Belgian and Dutch police were able to infiltrate the platform and harvest hundreds of thousands of supposedly unbreakable messages.

3. FBI planned a sting against An0m cryptophone users over drinks with Australian investigators

Three years ago, the FBI began planning a sophisticated sting that led to the arrests of 800 suspected organised criminals in raids around the world.

Police have since carried out hundreds of searches, seized drugs, firearms, luxury vehicles and cash in co-ordinated operations across multiple countries.

The targets were organised crime groups which had placed their trust in an encrypted phone application called An0m to arrange drug deals, kidnappings and assassinations.

An informer working for the FBI sold An0m Android phones on the black market, claiming it offered users highly secure encrypted messaging services.

4. Government puts Facebook under pressure to stop end-to-end encryption over child abuse risks

Home secretary Priti Patel used a conference organised by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to warn that end-to-end encryption will severely erode the ability of tech companies to police illegal content, including child abuse and terrorism.

The home secretary’s intervention is the latest salvo in a long-running battle by ministers and the intelligence services against the growth of end-to-end encryption.

Speaking at a roundtable organised by the NSPCC to discuss the “next steps to securing child protection within end-to-end encryption”, Patel warned that end-to-end encryption could deprive law enforcement of millions of reports of activities that could put children at risk.

5. How Samlesbury, Lancashire became the home of the National Cyber Force

The battle to win the headquarters of the UK’s National Cyber Force (NCF) has been quietly fought out of the public eye for the past 12 months.

Samlesbury, in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, saw off stiff competition from Manchester, the home of GCHQ’s northern office, to become the site of the UK’s headquarters for military operations in cyber space against nation states, terrorists and criminals.

The arrival of the NCF brings with it an investment of £5bn to the Lancashire economy, the largest seen in the area for 50 years.

In its wake is the promise of high-tech jobs to an area that has been struggling with lower-than-average wages and a shortage of highly skilled jobs.

6. Surveillance expert ‘unfairly’ refused job at intelligence regulator after MI5 intervened

One of the leading experts in UK surveillance law was “unfairly” refused security clearance for a senior role overseeing the intelligence services after MI5 raised “serious reservations” over his former associations with privacy campaigning groups.

Eric Kind, a visiting lecturer at Queen Mary University London specialising in criminal justice and surveillance technologies, had been due to become the first head of investigations at surveillance watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (ICPO).

Kind had high-level support from the ICPO and current and former members of the police and intelligence services, including David Anderson, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, for the job.

But the Home Office reversed a decision to give him security clearance after MI5 raised concerns that his work with non-governmental organisations to reform surveillance meant he was “insufficiently deferential to the sanctity of confidentiality”, it emerged today.

7. Government use of ‘general warrants’ to authorise computer and phone hacking is unlawful

The security and intelligence services cannot use “general warrants” to indiscriminately hack into large numbers of mobile phones and computers in the UK, judges have decided.

The High Court ruled on 8 January that it was unlawful for GCHQ and MI5 to use the warrants issued under Section 5 of the Intelligence Services Act to interfere with electronic equipment and other property.

The judgment means that targets for equipment interference – government language for hacking – will have to be scrutinised by a secretary of state, rather than being left to the discretion of intelligence agencies. Warrants will only be lawful if they are specific enough for the targeted equipment to be objectively ascertainable.

8. CIA sought revenge against Julian Assange over hacking tool leaks, court hears

The CIA wanted revenge against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after WikiLeaks published documents about the CIA’s surveillance tools, a court heard.

Lawyers for Assange told court judges that the Vault 7 leak – which disclosed the CIA’s hacking capabilities – provoked a desire for blood and vengeance from the US intelligence community.

They told the court that US agents discussed plans to forcibly remove Assange from the Ecuadorian embassy by kidnapping him and had discussed the idea of poisoning him.

The claims were made on the second day of an appeal by the US government against a UK court’s decision not to extradite Assange to face charges in the US.

9. EU recognises UK data protection adequacy – but with a warning

Businesses in the UK will be able to continue to exchange data with Europe following a long-awaited decision that the UK’s data protection regime is compatible with Europe’s data protection rules.

After a year of talks between the UK and European Union (EU), the European Commission (EC) granted adequacy status to the General Data Protection Regulation and the Law Enforcement Directive.

The decision comes with a four-year sunset clause and “strong safeguards” that allow the EU to revoke adequacy if the UK’s data protection laws diverge significantly from the EU’s in the future.

Conservative ministers and backbenchers have proposed watering down the UK’s data protection regime as part of a move to cut red tape and boost the competitive position of the UK following Brexit.

“We are talking about a fundamental right of EU citizens that we have a duty to protect,” said Věra Jourová, vice-president for values and transparency at the EC. “This is why we have significant safeguards, and if anything changes on the UK side, we will intervene.

10. Pandora Papers: How journalists mined terabytes of offshore data to expose the world’s elites

The Pandora Papers revealed how politicians, celebrities, royalty and fraudsters use offshore tax havens to hide assets, secretly buy property, launder money and avoid taxes.

More than 600 journalists in 117 countries collaborated, using data tools to extract hidden connections between offshore companies and wealthy elites who used tax havens to hide their financial activities. Their investigation embarrassed politicians, royalty, celebrities and oligarchs worldwide.

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Check out the shopping experience at Amazon’s new retail clothing store

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Check out the shopping experience at Amazon’s new retail clothing store

Amazon does very well with its online clothing sales, but physical clothes stores still sweep up most of the business.

Keen as ever for a piece of the pie, the e-commerce giant has unveiled plans for its first-ever retail clothing store for men and women, selling garments, shoes, and accessories from well-known brands as well as emerging designers.

The 30,000-square-foot brick-and-mortar store will open at The Americana at Brand — an upmarket shopping complex in Glendale, Los Angeles — later this year.

As you can see in the video below, Amazon Style stores will only have one sample of each item on the store floor. If you want to try something on, you simply use the Amazon Shopping app to scan its QR code, select the size and color, and it’ll be sent directly to the fitting room. Inside the fitting room you’ll find a large-screen tablet that lets you call for more colors or sizes.

You can also scan to buy and collect the item almost immediately from the pickup counter. Scanning items will also prompt Amazon’s algorithms to suggest similar items that you might like to try.

“Customers enjoy doing a mix of online and in-store shopping, and that’s no different in fashion,” Simoina Vasen, the managing director of Amazon Style, told CNN. “There’s so many great brands and designers, but discovering them isn’t always easy.”

Vasen also said Amazon Style will sell “everything from the $10 basic to the designer jeans to the $400 timeless piece” in a bid to meet “every budget and every price point.”

While Amazon made its name with online shopping, in recent years the company has explored the world of physical stores with a range of openings.

It started off with bookstores in 2015 before launching the first of many cashier-free Amazon Go stores that use cameras to track your purchases so you can simply grab and go without having to line up. But it didn’t stop there. Amazon Fresh grocery stores have been popping up in states across the country, while it also launched a store called Amazon 4-star selling products that have received high ratings on its online store.

It also acquired Whole Foods in a $13 billion deal 2017, and last year was reportedly looking into the idea of opening a chain of discount stores, though the pandemic apparently prompted the company to put the idea on hold.

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How to enable TPM 2.0 on your PC

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How to enable TPM 2.0 on your PC

One of the controversial requirements to run Windows 11 is a TPM 2.0 chip. This chip, usually found on your PC’s motherboard, is a security chip that handles encryption for your fingerprint, other biometric data, and even things like Windows BitLocker. It’s usually turned on by default on most PCs, and found in most modern systems purchased in the last few years.

Yet if you’re not sure if TPM 2.0 is turned on (usually the Windows 11 updater will check for you), you can check for it manually and then enable it in a few steps. Here’s how.

Windows 10's Security Menu.


Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

Check for TPM using the Windows Security App

Before diving into our guide, you might want to check for a TPM 2.0 chip on your PC. You can do this manually through the Windows 10 settings. This will let you know if you can continue with the Windows 11 install process.

Step 1: Open Windows 10 settings with Windows Key and I on your keyboard. Then go to Update and Security.

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Step 2: From Update and Security click Windows Security followed by Device Security and Security Processor Details. If you don’t see a Security Processor section on this screen, your TPM 2.0 chip might be disabled or unavailable. If you see a spec that’s lower than 2.0, then your device can’t run Windows 11.

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Windows 10's Security Options.


Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

Get to BIOS to enable TPM

Once you verify or confirm that you have a TPM 2.0 chip on your system, then you’ll need to get into your PC’s BIOS to enable it. You can do this directly through Windows without the need for a keyboard combination on boot. Here’s how.

Step 1: Go into Windows 10 Settings. Head to Update and Security, followed by Recovery and then Restart Now. Your system will restart.

Windows 10's Advanced Security Options Menu.


Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

Step 2: On the next screen, you’ll want to choose Troubleshoot, followed by Advanced Options and then UEFI Firmware Settings. Click on the Restart button, and this will boot your PC into the system BIOS to check on TPM 2.0.

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Dell's BIOS settings.


Arif Bacchus/Digital Trends

Enable TPM 2.0 in the BIOS

Now that you’re in the System BIOS, you’ll want to look for a specific submenu. On most systems, the TPM settings can be found under settings labeled Advanced Security, Security, or Trusted Computing. Navigate to these menus using either the keyboard combinations listed on the screen or the mouse if your BIOS supports it.

If you’re unsure about which menu to get into, you can visit the links below. Each link will take you to a PC manufacturer’s page with guidance on how to enable TPM 2.0.

Step 1: Once you’re in the respective menu in the BIOS, you can check the box or flip the switch for one of the following options. Sometimes TPM 2.0 can be labeled differently as one of these options: Security Device, Security Device Support, TPM State, AMD fTPM switch, AMD PSP fTPM, Intel PTT, or Intel Platform Trust Technology.

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Step 2: If you’re not sure if you’re checking the right box for TPM 2.0 settings, then you might want to check with the support documents for the company that made your PC. We linked to some of those above.

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Step 3: Once you enable TPM 2.0, you can exit the BIOS using the commands listed at the bottom of the screen. Usually, the Esc key will do the trick, and you’ll be prompted to Save and Exit. Your system will then restart and boot you back into Windows.

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Now that you confirmed that your PC has a TPM 2.0 chip, you can proceed with the Windows 11 installation process. We have a guide on how you can do that, and another piece that explains the differences between Windows 10 and Windows 11.

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4: What we want from the new foldable

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Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4: What we want from the new foldable

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 has been my daily driver for a while now –and I love it. Unfolding it to get a bigger display still feels futuristic every time I do it. The cameras get the work done, and it is an amazing mobile device for productivity. But despite being the best of its kind, all things can use some improvement, and that’s the case for the Galaxy Z Fold 3 as well.

Here’s what I hope Samsung improves on with the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

A wider cover display … with a caveat

From left, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Oppo Find N open from the back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Front displays on foldables are meant to get things done quickly, without having to go to the next step of unfolding the phone. For instance, replying to that message on WhatsApp, checking the time, swiping through notifications, and anything that requires little effort. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 flies through quick tasks on the slim 6.2-inch display — unless I have to quickly type something on it.

Typing on the cover display of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a troublesome task. Due to the slimness of the screen, you don’t get the usable width on the keyboard, which results in a lot of typos that end up frustrating me. Making the cover display wider solves the problem of typos, but also leads to a wider foldable display.

Based on my experience with the Oppo Find N, it might not be a good idea despite the usability improvement. The web is built to operate vertically. You scroll down on stuff, be it your Twitter feed, TikTok, Instagram Reels, reading on a browser, or anything else. Personally, I’ve yet to come across an app or a webpage where I prefer a wider aspect ratio to a taller one. I like the taller aspect ratio of the Fold 3 rather than the wider aspect ratio on the Find N.

If Samsung could shrink the size of the left bezel on the cover display and increase its width, while keeping the dimensions the same as the Galaxy Z Fold 3, I’ll be glad. If not, I’ll just unfold the display to type quick replies as I have been doing.

Longer-lasting battery and faster charging

Typing on the closed Galaxy Z Fold 3.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Fold 3 battery life is above average, but not the best. If you push it to the limits or have a busy day without access to Wi-Fi, it’ll drain the battery before you get to bed. And unfortunately, the fast-charging support is limited to 25 watts.

With Chinese smartphone manufacturers raising the bar on fast charging to a mind-boggling 120W, I hope to see the Galaxy Z Fold 4 offer up to 45W fast charging at least. I’m fine with a 4,400mAh battery if I get support for fast charging that can get my phone from 10% to 60% within 35 minutes or so. Samsung has done it before with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, so there’s no reason it can’t bring 45W fast-charging support to the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

An upgrade to 11W fast wireless charging would also be much appreciated.

Make it lighter

Galaxy Z Fold 3 outer display showing ParkyPrakhar Twitter.

The first thing you realize when you start using the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is its weight. Depending on how you hold the phone, your pinkie finger could feel strain when using it folded for longer durations. That shouldn’t be the case with any foldable. It unfolds! Use it that way.

A reduction in the current 271-gram would be a welcome change and provide some relief to people’s pinkie fingers. I have had no major issues with the weight on my current Fold 3, but a lighter model would just feel better in the hands.

Better app optimization

An open Galaxy Z Fold 3 with apps on the screen.
An open Galaxy Z Fold 3 with apps on the screen. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

This one has much more to do with Android app developers than Samsung, but apps could definitely use some optimization. And by app optimization, I don’t mean a full-screen Instagram (although, you can do that in the Samsung Lab in Settings).

Apps like WhatsApp, which is used by billions of people, need to step things up. On the Galaxy Z Fold 3, if I’m clicking a photo from the app, it magnifies everything. The viewfinder doesn’t give you an accurate estimate of what your photo is going to look like. Everything is blown up and magnified – even on video calls! If the user at the other end is holding the smartphone at the usual distance, you’ll see a cropped version on the folding display.

I hope WhatsApp can push out an update that fixes things, especially when its sister app — Instagram — has it all figured out in the Stories section. Instagram Stories don’t crop or magnify your image in the viewfinder.

There’s a decent chance the situation will start to improve with Android 12L, but a lot still rides on app developers implementing these changes.

Creaseless folding display

A Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 device with the display turned off lying on some leaves.

The crease on the Fold 3 folding display is much like the notch on Apple devices – you stop noticing it after a while. However, it is still noticeable when there’s a dark background, especially when reading something on the Kindle app, which is a common use case for me. Despite the crease bothering me sometimes, I love reading on the Fold 3.

On the other hand, the Oppo Find N‘s foldable display doesn’t have a deep crease like the Fold, though that might change after long-term use. But out of the box, the Find N has a much more seamless foldable display that looks and feels more pleasant to use. I just wish Samsung could figure out a way to minimize the crease to make my reading experience more pleasant.

Better UDC selfie shooter on the inside

Galaxy Z Fold 3 on a pavement.

When Samsung debuted the 4MP under-display camera (UDC) on the Fold 3, it was making a huge bet by adding an innovative new feature while also sacrificing usability. It’s beautiful to have a 7.6-inch display without any cutout bothering you and makes full-screen content appear more thrilling.

However, the quality of the selfies taken from the UDC isn’t great, as we noted in our review. Fortunately, Samsung is likely already working on a next-gen UDC with better image quality output, and I hope it debuts on the Galaxy Z Fold 4.

Built-in dock for S-Pen

Samsung introduced the capability of S-Pen support from its Note lineup to the Galaxy S21 Ultra and the Galaxy Z Fold 3. However, both of them missed out on a huge functional design feature that the Note had – a place to keep the S-Pen. If the Galaxy S22 Ultra renders are anything to go by, Samsung is already working on a place you can slot the S Pen without needing to shell out for a special case. That’ll make the S22 Ultra feel much more like the presumably defunct Note series, while the Z Fold 4 could get this slot, too, and serve as a more effective note-taking slate.

When will Galaxy Z Fold 4 launch?

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 has largely replaced the Galaxy Note lineup, which used to serve as the second flagship series lineup for Samsung. Now, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 is expected to launch alongside the Galaxy Z Flip 4 toward the end of 2022.

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