Monthly Archives: April 2015


US President Barack Obama uses a Blackberry. image

US President Barack Obama uses a Blackberry. Photo: AFP

Washington: Some of US President Barack Obama’s email correspondence was swept up by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House’s unclassified computer system that was far more intrusive and worrisome than has been publicly acknowledged, according to senior American officials briefed on the investigation.

The hackers, who also got deeply into the State Department’s unclassified system, do not appear to have penetrated closely guarded servers that control the message traffic from Mr Obama’s BlackBerry, which he or an aide carries constantly.

But they obtained access to the email archives of people inside the White House, and perhaps some outside, with whom Mr Obama regularly communicated. From those accounts, they reached emails that the President had sent and received, according to officials briefed on the investigation.

White House officials said that no classified networks had been compromised, and that the hackers had collected no classified information. Many senior officials have two computers in their offices, one operating on a highly secure classified network and another connected to the outside world for unclassified communications.

But officials have conceded that the unclassified system routinely contains much information that is considered highly sensitive: schedules, email exchanges with ambassadors and diplomats, discussions of pending personnel moves and legislation, and, inevitably, some debate about policy.

Officials did not disclose the number of Mr Obama’s emails that were harvested by hackers, nor the sensitivity of their content. The President’s email account itself does not appear to have been hacked. Aides say that most of Mr Obama’s classified briefings – such as the morning Presidential Daily Brief – are delivered orally or on paper (sometimes supplemented by an iPad system connected to classified networks) and that they are usually confined to the Oval Office or the Situation Room.

Still, the fact that Mr Obama’s communications were among those hit by the hackers – who are presumed to be linked to the Russian government, if not working for it – has been one of the most closely held findings of the inquiry. Senior White House officials have known for months about the depth of the intrusion.

“This has been one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen,” said one senior US official briefed on the investigation.

Others confirmed that the White House intrusion was viewed as so serious that officials met on a nearly daily basis for several weeks after it was discovered. “It’s the Russian angle to this that’s particularly worrisome,” another senior official said.

While Chinese hacking groups are known for sweeping up vast amounts of commercial and design information, the best Russian hackers tend to hide their tracks better and focus on specific, often political targets. And the hacking happened at a moment of renewed tension with Russia – over its annexation of Crimea, the presence of its forces in Ukraine and its renewed military patrols in Europe, reminiscent of the Cold War.

Inside the White House, the intrusion has raised a new debate about whether it is possible to protect a president’s electronic presence, especially when it reaches out from behind the presumably secure firewalls of the executive branch.

Mr Obama is no stranger to computer-network attacks: His 2008 campaign was hit by Chinese hackers. Nonetheless, he has long been a frequent user of email, and publicly fought the Secret Service in 2009 to retain his BlackBerry, a topic he has joked about in public. He was issued a special smartphone, and the list of those he can exchange emails with is highly restricted.

When asked about the investigation’s findings, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Bernadette Meehan, said: “We’ll decline to comment.” The White House has also declined to provide any explanations about how the breach was handled, though the State Department has been more candid about what kind of systems were hit and what it has done since to improve security. A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment.

Officials who discussed the investigation spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the hacking. While the White House has refused to identify the nationality of the hackers, others familiar with the investigation said that in both the White House and State Department cases, all signs pointed to Russians.

On Thursday, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter revealed for the first time that Russian hackers had attacked the Pentagon’s unclassified systems, but said they had been identified and “kicked off”. Defence Department officials declined to say if the signatures of the attacks on the Pentagon appeared related to the White House and State Department attacks.

The discovery of the hacking in October led to a partial shutdown of the White House email system. The hackers appear to have been evicted from the White House systems by the end of October. But they continued to plague the State Department, whose system is much more far-flung. The disruptions were so severe that during the Iranian nuclear negotiations in Vienna in November, officials needed to distribute personal email accounts, to one another and to some reporters, to maintain contact.

Earlier this month, officials at the White House said that the hacking had not damaged its systems and that, while elements had been shut down to mitigate the effects of the attack, everything had been restored.

One of the curiosities of the White House and State Department attacks is that the administration, which recently has been looking to name and punish state and non-state hackers in an effort to deter attacks, has refused to reveal its conclusions about who was responsible for this complex and artful intrusion into the government. That is in sharp contrast to Mr Obama’s decision, after considerable internal debate in December, to name North Korea for ordering the attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, and to the director of national intelligence’s decision to name Iranian hackers as the source of a destructive attack on the Sands Casino.

This month, after CNN reported that hackers had gained access to sensitive areas of the White House computer network, including sections that contained the President’s schedule, the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the administration had not publicly named who was behind the hack because federal investigators had concluded that “it’s not in our best interests”.

By contrast, in the North Korea case, he said, investigators concluded that “we’re more likely to be successful in terms of holding them accountable by naming them publicly”.

But the breach of the President’s emails appeared to be a major factor in the government secrecy.

“All of this is very tightly held,” one senior American official said, adding that the content of what had been breached was being kept secret to avoid tipping off the Russians about what had been learned from the investigation.

Mr Obama’s friends and associates say that he is a committed user of his BlackBerry, but that he is careful when emailing outside the White House system.

“The frequency has dropped off in the last six months or so,” one of his close associates said, though this person added that he did not know if the drop was related to the hacking.

Mr Obama is known to send emails to aides late at night from his residence, providing them with his feedback on speeches or, at times, entirely new drafts. Others say he has emailed on topics as diverse as his golf game and the struggle with Congress over the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

George W. Bush gave up emailing for the course of his presidency and did not carry a smartphone. But after Mr Bush left office, his sister’s email account was hacked, and several photos – including some of his paintings – were made public.

The White House is bombarded with cyber attacks daily, not only from Russia and China. Most are easily deflected.

The White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies put their most classified material into a system called JWICS, for Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. That is where top-secret and “secret compartmentalised information” traverses within the government, to officials cleared for it – and it includes imagery, data and graphics. There is no evidence, senior officials said, that this hacking pierced it.

New York Times


Henry Sapiecha

See everything you’ve ever Googled with this little-publicised web tool

google logo sign image

Take a peek into your own personal Google vault, if you’re so brave. Photo: Tamara Voninski

You probably don’t remember what you Googled 10 minutes ago, let alone the myriad inane and fleeting things you’ve searched since the engine’s beginnings.

But unless you’re browsing in incognito mode or have tweaked your account settings, Google remembers those things. Not only that: Google logs all of your searches, analyzes them, and uses them to individually personalise the search results you see – which has pretty profound implications for both literacy and privacy.

Now, the search giant has created a way for users to better understand that process. In a feature quietly rolled out last January, and surfaced by a Google blog over the weekend, users can download their search histories from Google, including things they’ve searched across computers and phones.

These histories aren’t 100-percent comprehensive: They only include searches you’ve made while signed in on your Google account. (Admittedly, if you have Gmail, this is probably more or less most of the time.)

Google also delivers them as JSON files, which aren’t the most human-readable things. But if you download your search history from the little drop-down in the top right corner of this page, open it in your computer’s notepad or other plain-text editing app, and search for the term “query_text,” you’ll get a rundown of everything you’ve ever searched.  I downloaded my archive to make this GIF of every phrase I’ve Googled in the past seven days. (No, I didn’t edit anything out; yes, you want to see Skateboarding Taco for yourself.)

google-gif image

So what’s the point of this, exactly, besides the novelty? The stated purpose of Google Takeout, a four-year-old user data program to which this feature belongs, is to give people an easier way to transfer their data from Google to other services. If I wanted to switch my email from Gmail to AOL, for instance, I could use Google Takeout’s email archive to port all my old messages over.

But there’s a really critical literacy purpose here, as well: By seeing what data Google has on you – and in what quantities – you can also begin to understand the decisions it makes about what you do and do not see.

Google search results are famously variable: What you see when you search “ice cream” is different from what I see, or what the person next to you on the subway sees, or even what you’ll see an hour from now. That’s because Google’s pagerank algorithm is designed to surface the results that it thinks you’ll find most relevant; everything else effectively gets buried.

That’s obviously a really useful service, particularly when you’re searching something like ice cream. (At the top of my Google results right now: The best ice cream places in D.C.) But when it comes to heftier topics – say, the 2016 election or gender equality – what Google terms “personal relevance” could really slant the type of information you receive.

“Web & App Activity makes searches faster and enables customised experiences in Search, Maps, Now, and other Google products,” is how Google explains itself.

It’s worth checking out your search history for another reason, too: As the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned in 2012, this kind of data can tell extremely intimate things about you, from your sexual orientation to your health problems. All of that data can theoretically be subpoened from Google. (Or hacked, if it’s on your hard drive – so be careful.)

You can control how much of this information Google receives: turning off the “save search history” feature is an option through your Google Account History settings. While you’re there, you may also want to stop Google from logging where you go, who your phone contacts are, and what you watch on YouTube. Then again, this is how Google knows to tell you things like the best nearby ice cream. That trade-off’s up to you.

The Washington Post


Henry Sapiecha

China’s ‘Great Cannon’ cyber weapon is designed to censor the internet

Chinese President Xi Jinping's government has unveiled a new tool to censor Internet speech image

A powerful new Internet weapon unleashed by the Chinese government against websites working to bypass the country’s online censorship was meant to deliver a not-so-subtle message to activists and foreign governments that the Communist nation will escalate efforts to control information on its networks.

The attacks last month, against the site of Chinese Internet freedom group Great Fire and U.S.-based site GitHub that hosts content banned in China, were performed by a new tool dubbed the “Great Cannon” that can steer the traffic of individual users to launch direct denial of service attacks against targeted websites, overwhelming the sites with data.

China has long imposed Internet censorship through a vast and expensive system dubbed the “Great Firewall” that prevents users from reaching much of the Web, but that system can be bypassed, permitting access to Western sites including the New York Times. Unlike the firewall, the new offensive weapon allows Chinese officials to launch attacks against sites they deem hostile, representing a “significant escalation in state-level information control,” according to a report by cybersecurity research group Citizen Lab, which first documented the weapon’s existence.

obama head shot image

The Great Cannon raises the risks for activist websites aiming to report, for example, on corruption in China’s government or on the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square violence against pro-democracy protesters. But the Internet weapon could also be used to attack sites based in foreign countries, says Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House advocacy group.

“What is worrisome about this is that it could be used to attack the New York Times website on a critical day like a U.S. election,” she says. “Potential future escalation could be a use of this in conjunction with some real world tension around the East or South China seas. Maybe a few years down the road, if you see China in a crisis with Japan or the Philippines, they could redirect traffic against those networks.”

The attacks last month were indelicate and relatively easily traced back to China, so it was likely that officials there were sending a signal with the new weapon, Cook says.

An attack against the Times would be unlikely, in part because of the international outrage it would spark, says Ben FitzGerald, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think tank. Media sites including the Times will still be able to bypass the Great Firewall using methods like proxy servers that allow access to the global Internet while evading domestic surveillance, but the Great Cannon shows Chinese resolve to take the offensive on cybersecurity, he says.

“There is a lot of power behind the Great Cannon,” says FitzGerald, who has consulted on cybersecurity for the U.S. and Australian governments. “It’s not very subtle, so for espionage they may choose to employ other methods.”

China Great Cannon system chart

Courtesy of Citizen Lab

China cracks down on the press and Internet freedom with online attacks or censorship when it anticipates political protest, and has launched direct denial of service attacks against sites like Human Rights in China or China Aid – but redirecting traffic is a new method.

The weapon redirected traffic flowing through China’s networks from not only Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also from the U.S., into a massive direct denial of service attack. Such data attacks could be costly for opponents of the Chinese Communist Party, as during the height of the attacks the Great Cannon redirected traffic from millions of users, raising GreatFire’s data-hosting bill with Amazon to $30,000 per day, Cook says.

china president at function image

China’s apparent involvement with Internet weapons like this will likely raise more scrutiny from the Obama administration, which has criticized China for sponsoring hackers that steal trade secrets from U.S. businesses.

President Barack Obama recently issued an executive order giving agencies the authority to coordinate on sanctions that would penalize “individuals or entities that engage in malicious cyber-enabled activities that create a significant threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economic health or financial stability of the United States.” The Justice Department last May also indicted five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army for allegedly stealing trade secrets and communications from U.S. companies.

“Evidence of offensive activities like these will bolster those efforts,” FitzGerald says. “The Obama administration has gone out of its way to make cybersecurity a legal and economic problem – not a military problem, which is the right approach.”

Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, warned in its report that China’s use of the Great Cannon could pressure other governments to develop Internet weapons. The National Security Agency has reportedly also developed offensive cybersecurity systems, according to documents leaked to the press by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

“The repurposing of the devices of unwitting users in foreign jurisdictions for covert attacks in the interests of one country’s national priorities is a dangerous precedent,” Citizen Lab said in its report.

Henry Sapiecha



Henry Sapiecha

Edward Snowden tells John Oliver how the government is collecting everyone’s ‘dick pics’ in this video interview

Snowden’s ‘dick pic’ interview

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sat down with comedian John Oliver to chat about US government surveillance debate in terms all Americans can understand

Former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on mass government surveillance, has dodged questions about whether he had read all the classified documents he leaked to the public and explained the practical realities of the mass data collection in terms most internet users clearly understand: how easily the government can access your “dick pics”.

Snowden made the rare face-to-face interview with comedian and host of satirical program Last Week Tonight John Oliver, who proved once again he does journalism better than many professional journalists. Oliver travelled to Moscow a week ago to speak to Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia after going public with the material.

Oliver, who has fiercely resisted being labelled a journalist in the past, pushed Snowden with a direct and challenging line of questioning in parts of the interview about whether he had actually read all the documents he leaked, asserting that there had been “f…-ups”, as Oliver termed them

Edward Snowden opened up in an interview with John Oliver.

Edward Snowden opened up in an interview with John Oliver.

Snowden replied that he had evaluated and “understood” all the documents, but would not confirm that he had actually read them.

The British host and his subject also provided perhaps the simplest explanation yet for how the surveillance program actually worked, using the nude pictures people send to each other online as an example.

“This is the most visible line in the sand for people,” said Oliver, “can they see my dick?”

Non-journalist John Oliver showed his interview skills while talking to Edward Snowden.

Non-journalist John Oliver showed his interview skills while talking to Edward Snowden.

Snowden told him that while there was of course no ‘Dick Pic Program’, “they are still collecting everybody’s information, including your dick pics”.

Oliver then lead Snowden through a series of detailed questions about different National Security Agency programs and whether they could see or collect this type of picture, with Snowden explaining how in most cases, they could.

“If you have your email somewhere like Gmail, hosted on servers overseas or transferred overseas, or at any time, crosses over borders outside the United States, your junk ends up on the database,” Snowden told him.

Snowden has been interviewed before, including by the Guardian, which broke the original NSA story, and in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, and had previously discussed how the NSA viewed people’s private, naked photographs.

But the wry execution of the latest interview sparked huge interest when it was screened on Sunday night and went viral on Monday in the United States. It also once again earned Oliver praise for his journalistic ability.

The terms under which the interview were brokered are not known – HBO, the network which screens Last Week Tonight, “respectfully declined” to respond to questions on the interview from Fairfax Media. Snowden certainly seemed caught off guard during several segments of the interview, suggesting he was not expecting many of the questions which came up.


The episode is likely to fuel further discussion about whether Last Week Tonight, which each week tackles a current event or real issue with humour, should best be defined as journalism or comedy, or some hybrid of both.

Oliver has made headlines before with his work on the show, revealing discrepancies in the claims about scholarships made by the Miss America pageant, or delving into the tactics used by tobacco companies to thwart regulation around the world.

His work certainly achieves journalistic ends through journalistic means – interviewing or evaluating primary sources, pursuing information in the public interest, explaining events and concepts and disclosing new information to his audience.

But like the outgoing host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, Oliver has repeatedly eschewed any label that even incorporates “journalism”, telling the New York Times last year: “We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy’.”


Henry Sapiecha