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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Russian Hacking: Where’s the Evidence?

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At the smallest, crappiest newspaper in the world – even at a high school paper – no sane editor would publish a story that wasn’t backed by solid evidence. As the 20th century print journalism cliché goes, if your mother says she loves you check it out. So why are the nation’s most prestigious multi-Pulitzer-winning newsgathering organizations repeatedly claiming that hackers working for the Russian government stole emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and gave them to WikiLeaks?

Because the CIA says so.

Well, not the actual CIA. Some unidentified people who claim to have seen some report say so.

The charge against Russia is explosive. “In a ‘closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill last week,’ intelligence officials told senators that it was now “quite clear’ that electing Trump was Russia’s goal,” according to Vox. Hothead Sarah Palin enabler and senior Arizona Senator John McCain called it “an act of war.”

Even Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman — historically a voice of reason and prescience — dove into the neo-Red-baiting morass of this weird month, writing that “bad guys hacked the election” thanks to “useful idiots” (a Cold War slur used against lefties like, um, Krugman, pinned here to Trump and his advisors).

(Hypocrisy alert! I’ll save my catalog of covert U.S. attacks against other nations’ democratic elections — Obama’s role in the recent coup in Honduras comes to mind — for some future book, a format where word counts aren’t as constricting.)

explainersmallAnyway, newspapers and magazines and radio and television and Internet news sites say that Russia was behind the hacks. So, as my editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator would surely have asked, what is the basis of this contention?

“The CIA.’s conclusion does not appear to be the product of specific new intelligence obtained since the election, several American officials, including some who had read the agency’s briefing, said on Sunday,” wrote the Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lichtblau. “Rather, it was an analysis of what many believe is overwhelming circumstantial evidence — evidence that others feel does not support firm judgments — that the Russians put a thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump, and got their desired outcome.”

The primary basis of this “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” appears to be that whoever hacked the DNC also hacked the RNC but only released the DNC stuff to WikiLeaks. “If the Russians were going to interfere, why on earth would they do it to the detriment of the candidate that was pro-Russian?” asked Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

My editor at the Spec would not have been impressed.

As Sam Biddle writes at The Intercept, “you can’t help but notice all of the qualifying words: Possibly, appears, connects, indicates.”

This is one of those awkward times when you have to admit that Donald Trump has a point: why should we take the CIA, whose BS Iraqi WMD intel led to the deaths of over a million people, at its word?

Why would the very same journalists who let themselves get duped 13 years ago dutifully transcribe what amounts to nothing more than unsubstantiated allegations?

I don’t know if Russia is innocent of hacking those emails — any more than the New York Times and the Washington Post and CBS News and so on know that they’re guilty.

No one knows.

Well, the CIA (and the hackers, if there indeed were hacks) might know. But if the spooks have any evidence, much less proof, they aren’t showing it to us or those idiotic media outlets. Which makes this an unsourced story — and one whose geopolitical implications, involving the world’s most heavily-armed nuclear states makes it incomprehensibly, irredeemably irresponsible to spread around.

If the government wants to warn us that a Russian puppet is about to move into the White House, they ought to take a cue from JFK, who went on television to show secret US spy photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Show us the evidence or shut up.

As if this “Russia hacked the election” episode wasn’t enough to showcase the intellectual bankruptcy of America’s state-controlled news media, the stenographers are ignoring a far more credible explanation for how WikiLeaks got the Podesta/DNC emails: they were leaked, not hacked.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and WikiLeaks associate, told The Daily Mail that a DNC insider motivated by “disgust at the corruption of the Clinton Foundation and the tilting of the primary election playing field against Bernie Sanders” personally gave it to him in Washington. “Neither of [the leaks] came from the Russians,” Murray says. “The source had legal access to the information. The documents came from inside leaks, not hacks.”

Murray is a paragon of integrity, having sacrificed his diplomatic career in order to call out Islam Karimov, the sadistic tyrant of Uzbekistan known for boiling political dissidents to death and his cozy ties to the U.S. (His account “Murder in Samarkand” is highly recommended for its brutal honesty.)

Regardless of your politics, Murray is infinitely more believable than the CIA.

WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange confirms that “the Russian government is not the source.” Assange too has an impeccable reputation.

As far as I can tell, only one U.S. outlet, the right-wing Washington Times, has covered the Murray angle.

Everyone “knows” that Russia hacked the election. But it may or may not be true. To the contrary! The facts point to a leak.

There is “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” that the moral midgets of American corporate media don’t have the slightest interest in uncovering the truth. How perfect as we enter the Age of Trump.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. Please consider supporting Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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Never Satisfied: Why Russian Hackers Want to Steal Your Eye

Originally published by ANewDomain.net:

Russian hackers, and also hackers from former Soviet republics that are not Russia whom we lump with their Russian counterparts partly for convenience and mostly out of geographic ignorance, are trying to hack into your stuff.

No one knows why. What’s in it for them? What are they going to do? Steal your negative bank balance? Bring it on, fuckers!

I mean, for some reason, we are supposed to be really upset and scared when Target, or Bank of America, or the U.S. government, or whatever gets hacked and our precious “data” gets taken. Even though, if someone uses your credit card, nothing happens. You call them. They take off the charges. (If they’re total jerks, they can charge you a whopping $50 per card. Whatevs.)

Yeah, you have to call them, but hey, while you’re on the phone with them anyway, maybe you can give them a hard time about the 25.24 percent “penalty charge” interest rate they’re charging you despite the fact that this ain’t Weimar Germany.

I say, screw it: Give your credit card number out to random bums! Tell them not to use it in any stores with cameras, though — which there aren’t any. Never mind.

russian-hackers-want-to-steal-your-eyeAnyway, the latest development/fad on the trying-to-keep-Russian-hackers-out-of-your-personal-crap front is biometric identification: using your fingerprints (like on the iPhone), iris scans (like in creepy dystopian movies and at passport control at American airports) and voice recognition in lieu of a password.

Pretty smart! Fingerprints are pretty much unique, except for evil identical twins. (Don’t bother, evil fraternal twins.) Ditto for iris scans — not the flower, stupid — and voice recognition. If it’s your face, or fingerprint, or eye, then that’s you and not some Russian hacker. Right?

Maybe not.

It’s not impossible to imagine some mash-up of the 1997 movie “Face/Off,” in which John Travolta and some other guy who looks like Nick Cage get their faces switched and stuff happens, and the even older TV show “Mission Impossible,” which constantly deployed form-fitting face masks, as a way to foil biometric face ID technology. Take that, NSA with your real-time tracking of our heads via ubiquitous street surveillance cameras!

On the eye front, what if the Russians take a cue from the 1980s street gang the Westies, who controlled the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan? Guys kept getting killed, and the prints on the murder weapons always suggested the same suspect — biggest gangster serial killer ever! Turned out the fingerprints belonged to a dude who’d been killed himself.

A clever boss kept the dead guy’s arm in the freezer and used it to apply his fingerprints to any gun used by his crew.

What if a Russian hacker stole your eye? Or hacked into your computer camera —yes,  they can do that — and created a 3-D scan of your orb on a 3-D printer?

Fingerprints, it turns out, are actually an incredibly shitty form of security. “Hackers have already made dummy fingerprints — using pictures of people’s hands available online — to swipe into the iPhone 6 scanner,” reports NPR.

Tech investor David Cowan says: “Either a password or a biometric can be stolen. But only the password can be changed. Once your fingerprint is stolen, it’s stolen forever, and you’re stuck.”

Well, not exactly. You could cancel that fingerprint, and use one of your other nine. But we take Cowan’s point: Best to stick with the classic “123456″ and “PASSWORD” passwords.

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Sony Hackers: Was It Really N. Korea? Why Some FBI Folk Doubt It

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

If you were impressed by how fast the FBI placed the blame for the Sony entertainment hacks on North Korea, you weren’t alone. Internet forensics are notoriously complicated, so this was obviously the result of amazingly efficient detective work, right?

Perhaps not.

A number of security experts doubt the US government’s claim of certainty in their accusation.

“The FBI says the attack came from IP addresses — unique computer addresses — that trace back to North Korea,” NPR reports. But those could be spoofed.

“The fact that data was relayed through IPs associated with North Korea is not a smoking gun,” Scott Petry, a network security analyst with Authentic8, told the network. “There are products today that will route traffic through IP addresses around the world.”

The FBI also points to malware used in the Sony attacks. Strings of that code, the feds say, are identical to those used in previous attacks known to have been carried out by North Korean hackers. Perry says that doesn’t mean anything either. Malware gets recycled by hackers all the time. “It’s like saying, ‘My God, this bank robbery was conducted using a Kalashnikov rifle — it must be the Russians who did it!'”

US government officials told the media that they found communications between the hackers that indicated their language of origin was Korean, and other experts say that conclusion is tentative and premature at best.

“Although it’s possible that these messages were written by people whose native language is Korean, it is far more likely that they were Russians,” said Shlomo Argamon, computer science professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology and chief scientist with Taia Global, after examining the writing style.

Finally, there’s the motive problem, as Wired puts it.

We’ve been told that the hacks were carried out on the order of a petulant dictator out to censor a film that disrespected his majesty, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s assassination comedy “The Interview.” But the demands of the hackers seem to align closer to a financial shakedown. Russians, then? In particular, the demands that Sony “pay proper monetary compensation” or face further attacks, points to someone other than a nation-state. Plus, for what it’s worth, North Korea has angrily denied involvement.

So if it wasn’t North Korea – or more accurately, if the US government isn’t 100% certain that it was North Korea – what are they saying that it was – or more accurately, that they are 100% certain that it was?

Robert Graham, CEO of Errata Security, speculated to Wired that a political hack within the FBI “wanted it to be North Korea so much that they just threw away caution.” Once the Obama administration repeatedly told the media that they knew it was North Korea, that became an official narrative that could never be walked back. “There’s this whole groupthink that happens, and once it becomes the message, it’s really hard to say no it’s not this.”

We have seen government groupthink before.

Within hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, network anchors and US government officials alike were openly jumping to the conclusion that Al Qaeda under the leadership of Osama bin Laden had to be responsible. As with the Sony hacks, what began as pure speculation based on circumstantial evidence – the theatrical nature of the attacks, their simultaneity and so on – soon became an official narrative that no one ever dared question, even when bin Laden denied responsibility (he had, on the other hand, claimed to have been behind the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in East Africa).

There are two parts of the equation here: responsibility and certainty. Who did it? How sure are we?

The FBI appears to be playing fast and loose with the latter question, much in the way that the Bush administration claimed to have been certain that the government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction during the 2002-2003 run-up to the invasion of that country. The lie was not in claiming that Saddam possessed WMDs. The lie was claiming to be sure.

Bin Laden may well have been the sole financier and leader of the 9/11 plot, just as the North Korean government could be responsible for the Sony hacks. In both cases, however, a rush to judgment in anticipation of the facts may prevent some or all of the truth from ever coming to light. In the 9/11 case, for example, considerable evidence points to Islamic Jihad, a radical organization based in Egypt, as well as Saudi financiers. Pinning the blame exclusively on bin Laden and Al Qaeda let those guilty parties escape investigation, and perhaps punishment.

Similarly, the FBI’s premature passing of blame on the government of President Kim Jong-un could be muddying the waters, thus allowing the actual responsible parties to continue their activities and setting the stage for their next hack attack. Not to mention, is it really a good idea to antagonize a paranoid, nuclear-armed adversary that is already convinced the US intends to invade and occupy it, by falsely accusing them?

It would be nice, though perhaps too much to ask, for the United States government to seek the truth in a calm, deliberative manner. The media can wait after an attack to learn who’s to blame. So can we.

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Breaking Modern Essay: Sony Hackers: Hollywood Crossed the Line

Originally published at Breaking Modern:

The as yet unidentified hackers who broke into Sony Entertainment’s incompetently protected servers have provoked a lawsuit filed by former employees angered by the company’s lack of security, a cluster of gossipy news stories about the quality of the next James Bond film and Angelina Jolie’s professional relationships, and a media ethics debate over whether publishing emails, salary information, movie scripts and other leaked material is effectively aiding and abetting the cyber thieves.

Now a New York movie theater has canceled a showing of Sony’s newest movie in response to a terrorist threat issued by the hackers.

What nobody’s talking about seems like the biggest story of all: the possible motivation of the self-styled “Guardians of Peace.”

Suspicion immediately fell upon North Korea due to the hackers’ complaints about an upcoming film, “The Interview,” which stars James Franco and Seth Rogan. “How bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to,” one communiqué declared, referring to the movie’s plot, about assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.

For what it’s worth, the government of North Korea has officially denied involvement. Seth Rogan believes them. “There’s no way it’s them’ because it seems too savvy of Hollywood politics.”

Regardless of the identity of the hackers, one question worth exploring is: has Hollywood crossed the line?

Political assassination plots are nothing new for American films. Based on the Frederick Forsyth spy novel, the 1973 thriller “The Day of the Jackal” showcased the scheming of a man who tried to kill French president Charles de Gaulle during the 1960s. But the movie came out after de Gaulle had already died of old age.

inglorious-basterdsThe Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy “Inglorious Basterds” depicts something that plainly didn’t happen, the arson and machine-gun killing of Adolf Hitler in a French movie theater. And anyway, that was Hitler, only the worst guy ever.

“The gory killing of a sitting foreign leader is new territory for a big studio movie,” Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, told the New York Times.

It’s kind of fascinating that the American press hasn’t been able to put itself in the shoes of North Koreans, enough of whom obviously support their leader to the extent that he continues to enjoy the tacit consent of the governed.

Imagine, if you can, how Americans would respond – even conservative Republicans – if, say, Iran, Russia, or some other political rival of the United States were to produce a motion picture depicting the violent assassination of President Obama. Many Americans would view such a film, even if it was marketed as a comedy as “The Interview” is, as something just short of an act of war.

Here in the United States, threatening the life of the president is a serious felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison. Why wouldn’t we expect other countries to take the threat against their leaders seriously too?

Americans don’t get that the citizens of other countries are just as patriotic as we are. Just like us, people in other nations don’t like it when we disrespect their leaders.

Not long ago, everyone, including the United States government, understood that treating heads of state disrespectfully exposed everyone’s leaders to the same treatment. Under international law and tradition heads of state have been considered immune from prosecution. Even when the US deposed an unfriendly leader in a coup d’état, such as when Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986, they facilitated his comfortable exile in places like the French Riviera.

It was the United States that broke this understanding between nations.

It began in 1989, with George Herbert Walker Bush’s overthrow of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega. The first Bush administration treated Noriega like a common criminal, trumping up dubious drug possession charges (a “110-pound” stash of cocaine found in his compound turned out to be tamales wrapped in banana leaves), kidnapping him to face charges in the United States on barely discernible legal grounds, and then sentencing him to two decades in a federal prison.

More recently, Bush the second boxed in former US client dictator Saddam Hussein, refusing to fly him out of Iraq, signed off on a ridiculous show trial conducted by his political enemies and then delivered him from U.S. custody to be unceremoniously hanged to death – while cell phone video cameras rolled – in 2006. Saddam went out looking classy – “Down with the invaders!” he shouted repeatedly before his death — the U.S., not so much.

Then there was the 2011 killing of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. Again, the United States didn’t leave the Libyan dictator a way out. Instead, NATO fighter jets and an American drone bombed his convoy, causing him to fall into the hands of opposition forces, who killed him.

Given this recent history, it isn’t surprising that Americans don’t see the big deal about a silly comedy movie fantasizing about killing a man they see as a silly neo-Stalinist dictator. But isn’t this just another case of American exceptionalism?

We see the world one way.

No one else agrees with us.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: I’m Not Changing My Passwords Just Cuz Hackers

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The 2003 film “House of Sand and Fog” depicts a tragic string of events that follows a woman who loses her house after ignoring eviction notices mistakenly sent to her for nonpayment of county taxes. A recovering drug addict recently abandoned by her husband, she’s overwhelmed by the deluge of bureaucratic housekeeping demanded by contemporary American society.

I think of that beleaguered woman’s character whenever I receive yet another notice from my credit card company that they are changing their terms and conditions, when an airline urges me to join their frequent flyer program, when a client informs me that they never received the email I’m sure I sent out, but now I can’t find in my sent messages. So much crap, so many petty details, why bother to get up in the morning?

Never is this deluge more front and center than during the immediate aftermath of the latest mass hacking, typically, allegedly, by online gangs in the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, they said they would bury us. Now they are — in security-focused inanity.

In the latest fiasco that has to make one question if we are really better off now than we were in the old days of passbook savings, they’re saying that as many as 76 million households may have had their account information compromised by an incursion into computers at the banking conglomerate JPMorgan Chase. “The intrusion compromised the names, addresses, phone numbers and emails of those households, and can basically affect anyone — customers past and present — who logged onto any of Chase and JPMorgan’s websites or apps,” reports The New York Times. “That might include those who get access to their checking and other bank accounts online or someone who checks their credit card points over the web. Seven million small businesses also were affected.”

Understand this: we are supposed to be very very scared. And we’re supposed to be scared for a reason: they want us to act. They – the banks and corporations – want us to spend an awful lot of time and energy protecting their money.

Bear in mind, when someone steals your credit card data and makes unauthorized purchases or withdrawals, you’re not responsible. In short, it’s not your problem. But the media is colluding with the megabanks in order to make us care about something that we really shouldn’t.

Consider, for example, this advice to us banking customers in the Times article: “Those who want to add a layer of security to their financial life should consider a ‘security freeze,’ one of the strongest tools against theft because it prevents someone from trying to open a new account in a consumer’s name. When you freeze your reports, the big three credit bureaus will not release your credit reports to any company that does not already have a relationship with you. Financial providers and other companies typically request such reports before issuing a new account.”

Considering that this is something that the powers that be want us to do, they’re not making it easy.

The paper continues: “Consumers need to approach each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and may need to pay a small fee, depending on where they live. The process can be a hassle because the freeze has to be ‘thawed,’ or lifted, to apply for a new credit card, for instance, or for a mortgage. (And consumers may need to keep PINs and other information handy to do that).”

Uh-huh.

So let me get this straight. Credit agencies that earn billions of dollars selling our information, much of it erroneous, want to charge us for our own data, so we can protect the big banks that we bailed out in 2009 at taxpayer expense and even now refuse to refinance mortgages or lend to small businesses, a major reason that the economy is still terrible, and waste God knows how many hours online or on the phone dealing with this boring crap.

Well, hear this, Russian hackers and American banksters: I’m a busy person. I have a lot to do. Like most Americans, I work three jobs. If I ever find myself with any spare time, it’s going to be on the beach and is going to involve margaritas and good books.

I am not going to change my passwords every time I read one of these scare stories. I refuse to pick new unique passwords for each of my dozens of accounts. I will not freak out on behalf of people who don’t give a damn about me or anyone I care about. And it will be a cold day in hell before I put a credit freeze on my own account, and pay for the privilege.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

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