Inside the hack of the century

Peter Elkind writes: On Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, a four-man team from Norse Corp., a small “threat-intelligence” firm based in Silicon Valley, arrived early for an 11:30 a.m. meeting on the studio lot of Sony Pictures Entertainment, in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. They were scheduled to see Sony’s top cybersecurity managers to pitch Norse’s services in defending the studio against hackers, who had been plaguing Sony for years.

After a quick security check at the front gate and then proceeding to the George Burns Building on the east side of the Sony lot, the Norse group walked straight into the unlocked first-floor offices of the information security department, marked with a small sign reading info sec. There was no receptionist or security guard to check who they were; in fact, there was no one in sight at all. The room contained cubicles with unattended computers providing access to Sony’s international data network.

The visitors found their way to a small sitting area outside the office of Jason Spaltro, Sony’s senior vice president for information security, settled in, and waited. Alone. For about 15 minutes.

“I got a little shocked,” says Tommy Stiansen, Norse’s co-founder and chief technology officer. “Their Info Sec was empty, and all their screens were logged in. Basically the janitor can walk straight into their Info Sec department.” Adds Mickey Shapiro, a veteran entertainment attorney who helped set up the meeting and was present that day: “If we were bad guys, we could have done something horrible.”

Finally Spaltro, who’s worked at Sony since 1998, showed up and led them to a nearby conference room, where another studio information security executive was waiting. The meeting began, and as Stiansen described how Norse scopes out potential threats, Spaltro interrupted: “Boy, that could really help us with that North Korean film!” According to the four Norse representatives, Spaltro explained that he was worried about a Seth Rogen comedy called The Interview that the studio was preparing to release on Christmas Day. It featured a plot to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the country’s actual leader. Recalls Stiansen: “They said North Korea is threatening them.” (Sony denies any mention of a North Korean cyberthreat.)

After about an hour the Sony team declared the session “very productive,” according to the Norse team, and promised to be in touch. They departed, leaving the visitors to find their own way out.

Three weeks later — starting at about 7 a.m. Pacific time on Monday, Nov. 24 — a crushing cyberattack was launched on Sony Pictures. Employees logging on to its network were met with the sound of gunfire, scrolling threats, and the menacing image of a fiery skeleton looming over the tiny zombified heads of the studio’s top two executives.

Before Sony’s IT staff could pull the plug, the hackers’ malware had leaped from machine to machine throughout the lot and across continents, wiping out half of Sony’s global network. It erased everything stored on 3,262 of the company’s 6,797 personal computers and 837 of its 1,555 servers. To make sure nothing could be recovered, the attackers had even added a little extra poison: a special deleting algorithm that overwrote the data seven different ways. When that was done, the code zapped each computer’s startup software, rendering the machines brain-dead.

From the moment the malware was launched — months after the hackers first broke in — it took just one hour to throw Sony Pictures back into the era of the Betamax. The studio was reduced to using fax machines, communicating through posted messages, and paying its 7,000 employees with paper checks.

That was only the beginning of Sony’s horror story. [Continue reading…]

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The tabloid king who shapes how Russians sees the world

Christopher Miller reports: Aram Gabrelyanov isn’t a man to mince words.

And what this tabloid king really dislikes are “assholes” and “traitors” who challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As if to dispel any doubts about his allegiance, his office has been decorated as a shrine to the president: On the wall above his desk hangs a portrait of Putin in hockey gear; a collection of photos of the president — as a young man, a KGB agent and as the leader of Russia — is displayed prominently on a bookshelf.

“I believe that the national leader should be beyond criticism,” says Gabrelyanov, in the Moscow offices of LifeNews, the sensationalist and popular 24-hour television channel and website he founded with his son Ashot. (His son served as general director until last year when he quit and moved to Brooklyn to launch a news app named Babo.)

The older Gabrelyanov resembles a boxer out of a 1930s gangster noir — he is jowly, sports dark stubble and his handshake is crushing. But his disposition is gregarious rather than menacing, and he has a ready arsenal of witty anecdotes and scintillating stories.

A constant stream of often salacious stories also underpins the channel’s slogan: “First in breaking news,” and there are rumors Russia’s intelligence community often feeds the channel information.

The channel is owned by the News Media holding company, fifty percent of which in turn is owned by the National Media Group of Yury Kovalchuk and Gennady Timchenko, two of Putin’s billionaire cronies who are on the U.S. government’s sanctions list.

Gabrelyanov denies that Russian security services use the channel to spread stories but freely admits that “doctors, nurses, police officers, politicians, all sorts of people” are on the LifeNews payroll. He calls these leakers “agents” and while he pays his staff salaries nearly five times what other outlets pay, the newsroom understands that a big portion of their wages are meant to buy off sources. [Continue reading…]

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Video: John Oliver on torture

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Digital journalism: The next generation

Michael Massing writes: Arriving at BuzzFeed’s editorial offices (housed in temporary quarters while the main office is being renovated), I found two adjoining cavernous spaces filled with long tables, at which sat some two hundred people gazing at computer screens. I was introduced to Shani Hilton, the executive editor for news. Thirty years old, she had worked for NBCWashington.com, the Washington City Paper, and the Center for American Progress before joining BuzzFeed in 2013. I asked her to cite some recent stories she felt were noteworthy. She mentioned a report by Ben Smith about the threat by an Uber executive to dig up dirt on a reporter who had criticized the company (it kicked up a storm); a story by Aram Roston on financial conflicts of interest involving a top NSA official (which led to the official’s resignation); and “Fostering Profits,” an investigation into deaths, sex abuse, and gaps in oversight at the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company. As for regular beats, Hilton mentioned two in which she felt BuzzFeed had excelled—marriage equality and rape culture.

From talking with Hilton and with Ben Smith (now editor in chief) and from sampling BuzzFeed’s home page, I came away convinced of its commitment to being a serious provider of news; there’s a sense of earnest aspiration about the place. At the same time, I was surprised by how conventional—and tame—most of its reports are. Much of BuzzFeed’s news feed seems indistinguishable from that of a wire service. Its investigations, while commendable, fall squarely within the parameters of investigative reporting as traditionally practiced in this country, with a narrow focus on managerial malfeasance, conflicts of interest, and workplace abuses. There’s little effort to examine, for example, the activities of hedge fund managers, Internet billionaires, or other pillars of the new oligarchy.

In April, Ben Smith removed two BuzzFeed posts that were critical of the advertising campaigns for Dove cosmetics and the Hasbro board game Monopoly. Both Dove and Hasbro advertise on the site. After coming under much fire, Smith restored the posts, though he denied that their original removal had had anything to do with pressure from advertisers. Soon after, the writer of the post critical of Dove, Arabelle Sicardi, resigned. So much for “true journalistic independence.” Overall, BuzzFeed’s practice of journalism seems nowhere near as pioneering as the sleek platform it has developed to deliver its product. [Continue reading…]

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Patrick Cockburn — not quite in a league of his own

In those quarters where the mainstream media is viewed with suspicion if not outright contempt, it’s commonplace to witness a strange anomaly: a handful of mainstream journalists have acquired a hallowed status which results in their reporting being treated as though it possesses unquestionable authority.

This is strange because if one assumes the position of refusing to belong to a flock of “sheep” who blindly believe the mainstream media, it makes no sense to join a different flock of equally uncritical admirers of a few celebrated investigative journalists.

What this anomaly most likely reveals is a lack of critical discernment being directed in any direction. Skepticism and blind faith turn out to be two sides of the same coin. Authority is assigned on the basis of perceived allegiances rather than the integrity of the journalism.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: Patrick Cockburn, the Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent, has an eclectic following. He is admired by Noam Chomsky and Rand Paul; and last December, when he won the British equivalent of a Pulitzer for his coverage of Syria and Iraq, the judges declared his journalism in a “league of its own” and wondered “whether the Government should [consider] pensioning off the whole of MI6 and [hire] Patrick Cockburn instead.”

Cockburn is conscious of his exalted position. He frequently admonishes his colleagues against the distortions born of “political bias and simple error.” In his recent book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he declares, “there is no alternative to first-hand reporting”. He adds: “Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources”.

Journalists rarely admit such things—even those as self-aware as Cockburn is. Consider this gripping, first-hand account of the slaughter of religious minorities by the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that appears on page 89 of his book. “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.

But there is a problem. The atrocity might or might not have happened but Cockburn certainly didn’t witness it. [Continue reading…]

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The ‘ISIS cyberwar’ hype machine is doing more harm than good

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai writes: Last week, hackers claiming to be affiliated with the extremist group known as the Islamic State released an Anonymous-style video making vague threats of “electronic war” against Europe and the US.

There is no proof or evidence that the video actually comes from the group, nor there is any evidence the group, also known as ISIS, has any ability to do anything damaging online other than taking over Twitter feeds or random media sites with their “cyberattacks.”

Yet, that didn’t stop a new round of breathless hype. On Sunday, The Hill wrote that ISIS was preparing for “cyberwar” and an “all-out cyber crusade.”

Looks like ISIS wannabes successfully hacked the media once again. [Continue reading…]

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Seymour Hersh dodges questions about why his articles no longer appear in the New Yorker

Seymour Hersh’s blockbuster articles used to appear in the New Yorker. Indeed, by his own account he was once apparently the star writer contributing to the magazine. “There was a point with the New Yorker where I thought they should rename the fucking magazine the Seymour Hersh Weekly,” Hersh told Isaac Chotiner in an interview for Slate.

Why the New Yorker no longer publishes Hersh’s major articles is a question for which Hersh offers no clear answer.

“I am the one that decided to publish it wherever the hell I please,” he says, implying that his latest report on the killing of Osama bin Laden had not been declined by anyone.

Dylan Byers reports, however:

Sources with knowledge of the matter said Monday that Hersh began pitching the magazine on the story years ago and that The New Yorker declined it on the grounds that it didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The New Yorker similarly declined Hersh’s 2013 article, also published in the London Review of Books, alleging that the Obama administration “cherry-picked intelligence” from the chemical attack in Syria in order to make the case for attacking President Bashar Assad.

Hersh would like people to believe that he’s the victim of some kind of conspiracy — that his work is too hot to handle for any American publisher and thus he has to turn to more courageous publications such as the London Review of Books.

But when pressed on the issue, it becomes clear that just as much as he wants to posture as an outspoken maverick, he nevertheless seems to have difficulty giving straight answers to straight questions:

Chotiner: If people here are turning down stories because of certain politics — you yourself said it was easier in Europe — that is a story that should be written.

Hersh: Now you said the first intelligent thing you have said. If you had asked whether he [David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker] didn’t run this because he is in love with Obama and all that stuff that people think, no … It is a very good question. Although we have huge disagreements. My children and I have huge disagreements. I have a huge disagreement with my dog. We have a lot of disagreements and there are times when he will call me and I will not answer the call. Oh fuck hold on. He always has said to me he welcomes any information and it was I who said fuck it.

Chotiner: OK but you have talked about the New Yorker’s Americana and said my question was a good one, so is there something to it?

Hersh: I think it is a great question.

Chotiner: So what do you think of it?

Hersh: I just told you what I think. In the case of the Bin Laden story, he is open for anything. It was I who made the decision.

Chotiner: I feel like you are telling me two different things. One is that you get less pressure in Europe, and the other is that this story would have been fine at the New Yorker.

Hersh: So fine, I am glad you are confused. Write whichever one makes you happy.

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What to keep secret in a secret war

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times, writes: If you were reading the two sentences by themselves, you might be surprised they appeared in the same newspaper.

One suggested a news organization that is tough-minded, calling its own shots about acceding to government requests for secrecy. It appeared in an article about whether the C.I.A.’s drone-strike program is properly monitored by Congress. The story named the program’s architect, Michael D’Andrea.

“The C.I.A. asked that Mr. D’Andrea’s name and the names of some other top agency officials be withheld from this article,” it said, “but The New York Times is publishing them because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

The other sentence suggested, by contrast, a news organization that provides anonymous cover for government officials touting the merits of their underexamined war. It appeared in an article on the effectiveness of the drone program, based partly on interviews with American officials. One of them was quoted anonymously: “‘Core Al Qaeda is a rump of its former self,’ said an American counterterrorism official, in an assessment echoed by several European and Pakistani officials.”

As The Times covered the recent unintended deaths of two Western hostages in a drone strike, a split personality was on view.

In many ways, the coverage has been remarkable for straightforward truth-telling.

A front-page news analysis by Scott Shane, for example, included this memorable paragraph, not in a quote but in the author’s own voice: “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.” (Mr. Shane’s knowledge comes in part from his book, due for September publication, on the 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam.)

But in other ways, drone coverage is still lacking in skepticism about government claims on classified killings — something I criticized in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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How Western media would cover Baltimore if it happened elsewhere

Karen Attiah writes: If what is happening in Baltimore happened in a foreign country, here is how Western media would cover it:

International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody.

Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population. Young, black American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white American males.

The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony. [Continue reading…]

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How the media became one of Putin’s most powerful weapons

Jill Dougherty writes: From his first days as president, Putin moved quickly to dominate the media landscape in Russia, putting not only state media but privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s influence.

“The limitations on the media have existed for the 15 years that Vladimir Vladimirovich has been in power,” Alexey Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, told me during a December visit to the Russian capital. The war in Ukraine, he added, has solidified Putin’s view of the media: “It’s not an institution of civil society, it’s propaganda. [The Russian broadcasters] First Channel, Second Channel, NTV, Russia Today internationally — these are all instruments for reaching a goal inside the country, and abroad.”

Early in his presidency, Venediktov said, Putin told him how he thinks the press works: “Here’s an owner, they have their own politics, and for them it’s an instrument. The government also is an owner and the media that belong to the government must carry out our instructions. And media that belong to private businessmen, they follow their orders. Look at [Rupert] Murdoch. Whatever he says, will be.”

Putin pursues a two-pronged media strategy. At home, his government clamps down on internal communications—primarily TV, which is watched by at least 90 percent of the population, but also newspapers, radio stations, and, increasingly, the Internet. State-aligned news outlets are flooded with the Kremlin’s messages and independent outlets are pushed — subtly but decisively — just to the edge of insignificance and extinction. At the same time, Putin positions himself as a renegade abroad, deploying the hyper-modern, reflexively contrarian RT — an international news agency formerly known as Russia Today — to shatter the West’s monopoly on “truth.” The Kremlin appears to be betting that information is the premier weapon of the 21st century, and that it can wield that weapon more effectively than its rivals.

When Western news outlets report on a “takeover” of the press by the Russian government, it usually evokes images of Putin, a puppet master behind Kremlin walls, ordering armed men to break down doors and haul away journalists. But in Russia, there are other ways to control the media — less dramatic, less obvious, but just as potent [Continue reading…]

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Yemen: The rise of the Houthis

The Rise of the Houthis was filmed in late 2014 and aired on the BBC last month.

Safa Al Ahmad, the freelance Saudi journalist who made this documentary, talks about her work in the short video below. On March 18, she won the 2015 Freedom of Expression Award for journalism, from the Index on Censorship.

Her 30-minute documentary, Saudi’s Secret Uprising, was broadcast by the BBC in May 2014:

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Russian propaganda exploits Western weakness

Andrew Kornbluth writes: It is becoming clear that certain authoritarian models of government are capable of matching and, in some respects, even exceeding the accomplishments of their democratic counterparts. Whether Russia, with its dependence on energy exports and otherwise undiversified economy, should be counted among them is debatable, but there is one area in which the Russian state has so far demonstrated a clear mastery over its Western opponents: its propaganda or, to use the public relations term, its messaging.

But impressive as the information component of Russia’s current “hybrid war” over Ukraine has been, its success arguably owes less to its ingenuity than to ingrained flaws in Western democratic culture for which there is no simple solution.

The effectiveness of Russia’s spin is difficult to deny; in addition to the almost 90 percent of Russians who support their president and, albeit passively, his expansionist campaign, a large part of the Western public, especially in Europe, remains convinced that Russia bears little or no responsibility for the war in Ukraine.

Ironically, Russian messaging has worked by exploiting vulnerabilities in precisely those mechanisms of self-criticism and skepticism which are considered so essential to the functioning of a democratic society. The modern Western culture of self-doubt has proved particularly susceptible to manipulation in a 21st-century confrontation that strongly recalls its Cold War origins.

Four assumptions popular in contemporary Western democratic discourse have been co-opted by Russian messaging in the present crisis. The first is that all sides in a conflict are equally guilty. Never far beneath the surface, Europe’s suspicion of the leader of the Western alliance, the United States, has been reinvigorated by successive scandals over the war in Iraq, torture and eavesdropping. Everyone has committed crimes — so the thinking goes — so how can the West possibly reproach Russia?

Likewise, in this confused moral landscape, the “illegality” of the Ukrainian revolution is blithely juxtaposed with the illegality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while the enormous differences in nature, scale and motive between the subjects under comparison go unmentioned.

The second assumption is that there are “two sides to every story.” The desire to consult multiple sources and the unwillingness to accept just one narrative are part of a healthy critical outlook, but the system breaks down when one side is a fabrication. There is no middle ground, for example, between the claim that the Russian army is fighting in Ukraine and the claim that it is not. [Continue reading…]

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Remembering Bob Simon

The following segment was broadcast on 60 Minutes in 2012:

Bob Simon died in a car crash in New York City on Wednesday evening.

Daoud Kuttab writes: “At the time that his colleagues were enjoying the Tel Aviv sun and beach, Bob was ploughing the streets of Gaza and the villages of the West Bank looking for that unique voice, that special interview, which he could beautifully embroider into his news masterpieces.”

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Remembering David Carr — in conversation with Poitras, Greenwald, and Snowden

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The international media is failing to report the Syrian war properly

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

February 2015 has already seen some major developments in Syria’s four-year conflict. At the start of February, rebels launched more than 100 rockets into Damascus and the Assad regime fired mortars on areas of its own capital, hoping to discredit the insurgents. At least six people were killed in the attacks.

Then came almost 50 regime air strikes on opposition-held areas near Damascus, which killed at least 82 people. Another 25 were killed in Aleppo when a barrel bomb hit a bus on a roundabout.

Meanwhile, rebels also claimed to have blown up 30 men fighting for the Assad regime – Hezbollah troops, Iranians, and Iraqis among them – at a militia headquarters west of Damascus.

All this while US-led coalition air strikes were carried out in eastern Syria against the Islamic State (IS), with Jordan in particular vowing to “wipe them from the face of the Earth” after the group murdered a captured pilot.

Take a look at the world’s media coverage, though, and you might be forgiven for thinking things were rather more quiet.

[Read more…]

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What the CIA didn’t want Americans to know

Politico reports: For a year, Newsweek held a story on the assassination of top Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh at the CIA’s request, the magazine confirmed Friday — only to be scooped by The Washington Post last week.

The CIA made a forceful case for holding the story in conversations and a meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., and Newsweek honored that request, according to Editor-in-Chief Jim Impoco.

“In the geopolitical context at that moment, the CIA made a very persuasive case,” Impoco said in an interview – but declined to say what arguments the CIA made at the time. The CIA also declined to comment. [Continue reading…]

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Under-reported conflicts seen affecting millions in 2015

Reuters reports: While wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine make headlines in the West, around 30 other conflicts receive little press coverage, and the resulting lack of pressure for change could have serious implications for millions of people, experts say.

Civil wars in Sudan’s western Darfur region and its southern states have almost disappeared from the media despite affecting huge numbers and displacing 2.4 million people in Darfur alone.

Neighbouring South Sudan is also an overlooked crisis that urgently needs attention, said Jean-Marie Guehenno, president of Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, which is currently tracking more than 30 conflicts globally.

South Sudan ranked alongside Afghanistan and Syria last year as the three least peaceful countries in the world in an annual index compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

“The horrific violence you still see in South Sudan is because there is no pressure from public opinion,” Guehenno told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The civil war there is entering its second year, bringing the world’s newest country to the brink of bankruptcy and famine as violence has displaced at least 1.9 million of the nation’s 11 million people and killed more than 10,000. [Continue reading…]

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American Sniper illustrates the West’s morality blind spots

Gary Younge writes: Say what you like about the film American Sniper, and people have, you have to admire its clarity. It’s about killing. There is no moral arc; no anguish about whether the killing is necessary or whether those who are killed are guilty of anything. “I’m prepared to meet my maker and answer for every shot I took,” says Bradley Cooper, who plays the late Chris Kyle, a navy Seal who was reputedly the deadliest sniper in American history. There is certainly no discursive quandary about whether the Iraq war, in which the killing takes place, is either legal or justified. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” wrote Kyle in his memoir, where he refers to the local people as “savages”.

The film celebrates a man who has a talent for shooting people dead when they are not looking and who, apparently, likes his job. “After the first kill, the others come easy,” writes Kyle. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally. I look through the scope, get my target in the crosshairs, and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people.”

Americans are celebrating the film. It has been nominated for six Oscars and enjoyed the highest January debut ever. When Kyle kills his rival, a Syrian sniper named Mustafa, with a mile-long shot, audiences cheer. It has done particularly well with men and in southern and midwestern markets where the film industry does not expect to win big. And while its appeal is strong in the heartland it has travelled well too, providing career-best opening weekends for Clint Eastwood in the UK, Taiwan, New Zealand, Peru and Italy.

And so it is that within a few weeks of the developed world uniting to defend western culture and Enlightenment values, it produces a popular celluloid hero who is tasked not with satirising Islam, but killing Muslims. [Continue reading…]

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