Why cyber war is dangerous for democracies

Moisés Naím writes: This month, two years after his massive leak of NSA documents detailing U.S. surveillance programs, Edward Snowden published an op-ed in The New York Times celebrating his accomplishments. The “power of an informed public,” he wrote, had forced the U.S. government to scrap its bulk collection of phone records. Moreover, he noted, “Since 2013, institutions across Europe have ruled similar laws and operations illegal and imposed new restrictions on future activities.” He concluded by asserting that “We are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy. For the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the outline of a politics that turns away from reaction and fear in favor of resilience and reason.”

Maybe so. I am glad that my privacy is now more protected from meddling by U.S. and European democracies. But frankly, I am far more concerned about the cyber threats to my privacy posed by Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes than the surveillance threats from Washington. You should be too. [Continue reading…]

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Video: Selfie soldiers — Russia checks in to Ukraine

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U.S. nuclear weapons could soon return to Europe

Der Spiegel reports: It’s been more than three decades since the vast peace protests took over Bonn’s Hofgarten meadow in the early 1980s. Back then, about half a million protesters pushed their way into the city center, a kilometer-long mass of people moving through the streets. It was the biggest rally in the history of the German Federal Republic.

Today, the situation isn’t quite that fraught, but it seems feasible that a similar scene may soon play out in front of the Chancellery in Berlin. For some time now, the Americans have once again been thinking about upgrading Europe’s nuclear arsenal, and in the past week, a rhetorical arms race has begun that is reminiscent of the coldest periods of the Cold War.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of an “accelerating spiral of escalating words and then of actions.” He described them as “the old reflexes of the Cold War.” [Continue reading…]

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Snowden’s files and the files Snowden took: Is Glenn Greenwald playing dumb?

An article in Britain’s Sunday Times this weekend, claimed: “Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.”

Glenn Greenwald writes:

The government accusers behind this story have a big obstacle to overcome: namely, Snowden has said unequivocally that when he left Hong Kong, he took no files with him, having given them to the journalists with whom he worked, and then destroying his copy precisely so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable as he traveled. How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims — “his documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure ” — if he did not even have physical possession of them?

The only way this smear works is if they claim Snowden lied, and that he did in fact have files with him after he left Hong Kong.

In fact, the article says nothing about how the files were allegedly obtained by Russian and China, while Greenwald claims the only way they could have been accessed would be directly from Snowden.

Yet in 2013, Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.”

So aside from Snowden himself (who if taken at his word, no longer possesses the files) there many different people (we don’t know how many or who they all are) who also have or had the files.

Are we to assume that each and every one of them is an unfailing master of digital security and these files could never have been obtained by a third party?

In a world where a data security company like Kaspersky can get hacked, I wouldn’t put it outside the realms of possibility that by some means or other, Russia and/or China might have gained access to the files Snowden took.

There are, however, several reasons to question this report — not because it came from anonymous sources, or necessitates believing the Snowden has lied — but because had these sources been able to substantiate their claims with credible evidence, they would most likely have turned to a better newspaper.

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Russia urges U.S. not to deploy weapons to border areas

The New York Times reports: Moscow issued muted warnings on Monday in response to the Pentagon’s possible stationing of battle tanks and other heavy weapons to speed the deployment of American troops if needed in NATO states bordering Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying it hoped that Washington would ultimately decide not to deploy the weaponry, while other senior officials and analysts suggested that the deployment would provoke the placement of a more potent Russian arsenal near the frontier or even herald the start of a competitive arms buildup.

“We hope that reason will prevail and the situation in Europe will be prevented from sliding into a new military confrontation which may have dangerous consequences,” the Foreign Ministry said in the statement. [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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U.S. is poised to put heavy weaponry in Eastern Europe

The New York Times reports: In a significant move to deter possible Russian aggression in Europe, the Pentagon is poised to store battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons for as many as 5,000 American troops in several Baltic and Eastern European countries, American and allied officials say.

The proposal, if approved, would represent the first time since the end of the Cold War that the United States has stationed heavy military equipment in the newer NATO member nations in Eastern Europe that had once been part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have caused alarm and prompted new military planning in NATO capitals.

It would be the most prominent of a series of moves the United States and NATO have taken to bolster forces in the region and send a clear message of resolve to allies and to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, that the United States would defend the alliance’s members closest to the Russian frontier. [Continue reading…]

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Russia has inherited only one thing from the Soviet Union — the love its leader holds for the pomp of military ceremony

Ivan Sukhov writes: Modern Russia is not positioning itself as a welfare state: The government now sees it as a burden to feed millions of people directly dependent on the state. Modern Russia is ostensibly trying to invest in development, but its space program is crumbling with every failed rocket launch, and lawmakers are scaring away potential investors with ill-conceived laws.

Modern Russia is definitely not the free and prosperous country that dissidents dreamed it would become when the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 — but, beyond a doubt, it is also not the Soviet Union. The contours of the social and political system now unfolding before our eyes are far harsher, the political taboos preventing society from degenerating into primitive obscurantism far fewer and the barriers separating the country from the rest of the world far higher.

Meanwhile, the honor guard embodying Great Russia continues marching at the Kremlin walls and the country’s nuclear missiles — capable of destroying half the planet — stand ready. [Continue reading…]

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France probes Russian lead in TV5Monde hacking

Reuters reports: Russian hackers linked to the Kremlin could be behind one of the biggest attacks to date on televised communications, which knocked French station TV5Monde off air in April, sources familiar with France’s inquiry said.

A French judicial source told Reuters that the investigators are “leaning towards the lead of Russian hackers,” confirming a report in French magazine L’Express.

Hackers claiming to be supporters of Islamic State caused the public station’s 11 channels to temporarily go off air and posted material on its social media feeds to protest against French military action in Iraq.

But the judicial source said the theory that Islamist militants were behind the cyber attack was no longer the main lead in the investigation.

U.S. cybersecurity company FireEye, which has been assisting French authorities in some cases, said on Wednesday that it believed the attack came from a Russian group it suspects works with the Russian executive branch. Relations between Paris and Moscow have suffered over the crisis in Ukraine, leading France to halt delivery of two helicopter carriers built for Russia. [Continue reading…]

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Increasingly frequent call on Baltic Sea: ‘The Russian navy is back’

The New York Times reports: The Emanuel, a 90-foot trawler, has what is supposed to be a humdrum job, plying a 30-mile stretch of the Baltic Sea to make sure vessels do not snag their anchors on a pair of electricity cables recently installed on the seabed.

On the morning of April 30, however, the Emanuel’s captain sent an alarming message to the Dutch operator of the trawler. “The Russian Navy is back,” he reported, adding that Lithuania had also sent a warship to the area, a patch of shallow water off this Lithuanian port city.

The encounter passed without violence, and the cables, being built to connect Lithuania to Sweden’s electricity grid, were left undisturbed. But the intrusion, one of four this year by Russian warships into the cable-laying zone, was yet another round in what has become a nerve-rattling test of wills between Russia and the West over former Soviet lands since the conflict in Ukraine started last year.

Cutting the region’s dependence on Russian energy — long one of Moscow’s main levers to squeeze its neighbors and get its way — has become central to that contest, and it is something Moscow is making increasingly clear it considers a threat, both financial and geopolitical. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s warlords slip out of control

Adrian Karatnycky writes: In waging a clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has made a bargain with the devil. He has farmed out much of the fighting to warlords, mercenaries and criminals, partly in an attempt to simulate a broad-based indigenous resistance to Ukrainian rule. But Mr. Putin’s strategy of using such proxies has resulted in the establishment of a warlord kleptocracy in eastern Ukraine that threatens even Moscow’s control of events.

Surrogate fighters were recruited from four sources: local criminal gangs; jobless males who live on the fringes of eastern Ukraine’s society; political extremists from Russia’s far right, including Cossacks; and itinerant Russian mercenaries who fought in Chechnya, North Ossetia, Transnistria and other regional conflicts in the post-Soviet Union. They have been trained and equipped with modern weapons, and are often supported by Russian regular and special troops.

These irregular forces now form the backbone of the armies of Donetsk and Luhansk, two mostly Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine along the border with Russia. Those separatist enclaves are dominated by well-armed criminal networks whose leaders play key roles in local politics, both formally, as government leaders, and informally, as chieftains of gangs with their own turf. These men and women have supplanted the pro-Russian elite that had held sway in the area since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s Internet Research Agency has industrialized the art of trolling

Adrian Chen writes: Around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 last year, Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, got a call from a resident who had just received a disturbing text message. “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,” the message read. “Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”

St. Mary Parish is home to many processing plants for chemicals and natural gas, and keeping track of dangerous accidents at those plants is Arthur’s job. But he hadn’t heard of any chemical release that morning. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of Columbia Chemical. St. Mary Parish had a Columbian Chemicals plant, which made carbon black, a petroleum product used in rubber and plastics. But he’d heard nothing from them that morning, either. Soon, two other residents called and reported the same text message. Arthur was worried: Had one of his employees sent out an alert without telling him?

If Arthur had checked Twitter, he might have become much more worried. Hundreds of Twitter accounts were documenting a disaster right down the road. “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals,” a man named Jon Merritt tweeted. The #ColumbianChemicals hashtag was full of eyewitness accounts of the horror in Centerville. @AnnRussela shared an image of flames engulfing the plant. @Ksarah12 posted a video of surveillance footage from a local gas station, capturing the flash of the explosion. Others shared a video in which thick black smoke rose in the distance.

Dozens of journalists, media outlets and politicians, from Louisiana to New York City, found their Twitter accounts inundated with messages about the disaster. “Heather, I’m sure that the explosion at the #ColumbianChemicals is really dangerous. Louisiana is really screwed now,” a user named @EricTraPPP tweeted at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Heather Nolan. Another posted a screenshot of CNN’s home page, showing that the story had already made national news. ISIS had claimed credit for the attack, according to one YouTube video; in it, a man showed his TV screen, tuned to an Arabic news channel, on which masked ISIS fighters delivered a speech next to looping footage of an explosion. A woman named Anna McClaren (@zpokodon9) tweeted at Karl Rove: “Karl, Is this really ISIS who is responsible for #ColumbianChemicals? Tell @Obama that we should bomb Iraq!” But anyone who took the trouble to check CNN.com would have found no news of a spectacular Sept. 11 attack by ISIS. It was all fake: the screenshot, the videos, the photographs.

In St. Mary Parish, Duval Arthur quickly made a few calls and found that none of his employees had sent the alert. He called Columbian Chemicals, which reported no problems at the plant. Roughly two hours after the first text message was sent, the company put out a news release, explaining that reports of an explosion were false. When I called Arthur a few months later, he dismissed the incident as a tasteless prank, timed to the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Personally I think it’s just a real sad, sick sense of humor,” he told me. “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck. (The F.B.I. told me the investigation was still open.)

The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.

And the hoax was just one in a wave of similar attacks during the second half of last year. On Dec. 13, two months after a handful of Ebola cases in the United States touched off a minor media panic, many of the same Twitter accounts used to spread the Columbian Chemicals hoax began to post about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. The campaign followed the same pattern of fake news reports and videos, this time under the hashtag #EbolaInAtlanta, which briefly trended in Atlanta. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable, suggesting a tremendous amount of effort. A YouTube video showed a team of hazmat-suited medical workers transporting a victim from the airport. Beyoncé’s recent single “7/11” played in the background, an apparent attempt to establish the video’s contemporaneity. A truck in the parking lot sported the logo of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

On the same day as the Ebola hoax, a totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates. Watching it, I thought I recognized the voice — it sounded the same as the man watching TV in the Columbian Chemicals video, the one in which ISIS supposedly claims responsibility. The accent was unmistakable, if unplaceable, and in both videos he was making a very strained attempt to sound American. Somehow the result was vaguely Australian.

Who was behind all of this? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. [Continue reading…]

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U.N. finds growing signs of Russian involvement in Ukraine war

Reuters: A separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine is revealing increasing evidence, but not yet conclusive legal proof, of Russian state involvement, senior United Nations human rights officials said on Monday.

“We are speaking about increasing inflow of (unofficial) fighters and increasing evidence that there are also some (Russian) servicemen involved in fighting,” Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told a news conference in Geneva.

Russia denies Western accusations that it is backing pro-Russian rebels with arms and troops.

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Putin’s effort to hide the deaths of Russian troops in Ukraine

The Moscow Times reports: Legal amendments introduced Thursday that classify as state secrets any losses sustained during peacetime special operations are further confirmation of Russia’s direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict, legal and military experts told The Moscow Times.

The amendments, signed by President Vladimir Putin, make “information disclosing the loss of personnel … during special operations in peacetime” a classified state secret.

Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement of Russian troops in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Asked to explain Putin’s move Thursday, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov had no immediate comment, Reuters reported.

Military servicemen who are killed, injured or go missing can be considered military losses, meaning their relatives will be forced to keep information about their deaths a secret, lawyers said Thursday.

“Even a death notification sent to parents or other relatives [of a soldier] can be considered a secret under this decree,” Ivan Pavlov, a leading lawyer in the field of government transparency who has successfully defended treason suspects, told The Moscow Times. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: From his hospital bed in the Ukrainian capital, Russian fighter Alexander Alexandrov feels abandoned by his country, its leaders and even the local Russian consul.

Alexandrov, 28, says he’s a Russian soldier who was captured in east Ukraine after being sent there on active duty with Russian special forces to help separatists fighting Kiev. He said he was serving on a three-year contract. “I never tore it up, I wrote no resignation request,” he said. “I was carrying out my orders.”

Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the face of widespread evidence to the contrary, has repeatedly said there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine – only volunteers who have gone to help the separatists of their own accord.

So Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, another Russian who was captured with him, find themselves pawns in the deepest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.

They believe they should be treated as captured servicemen. But Moscow will not admit they are any such thing, or that it has sent any soldiers into Ukraine to help wrest swathes of east away from Kiev’s control. To do so would undermine Moscow’s claims that the separatist uprising there is a spontaneous reaction by Russian-speaking communities against Kiev.

The Kremlin has described the two men as Russian citizens, and Russia’s defense ministry has said they are former soldiers who left the military before they were captured.

Disowned at home, the two men stand accused by Ukrainian authorities of being terrorists.

In an interview from his bed, Alexandrov, wearing a hospital-issue green T-shirt and with several days stubble on his face, told Reuters he felt alone and trapped between these vast forces. He said the Russian consul in Kiev had visited him and Yerofeyev, but had been a let-down. The two captives had hoped Moscow would get them home in a prisoner exchange, but they said the consul had been non-committal. [Continue reading…]

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Russia steps up propaganda push with online ‘Kremlin trolls’

The Washington Post reports: Deep inside a four-story marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside. Known as “Kremlin trolls,” the men and women work 12-hour shifts around the clock, flooding the Internet with propaganda aimed at stamping President Vladimir Putin’s world vision on Russia, and the world.

The Kremlin has always dabbled in propaganda, but in the past year its troll campaign has gone into overdrive, adding hundreds of online operatives to help counter Western pressure over its role in the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The program is drawing Serbia away from its proclaimed EU membership path and closer to the Russian orbit, and is targeting Germany, the United States and other Western powers. The operation has worried the European Union enough to prompt it to draw up a blueprint for fighting Russia’s disinformation campaign, although details have not yet been released.

Lyuda Savchuk, a single mother with two children, worked in the St. Petersburg “troll factory” until mid-March. The 34-year-old journalist said she had some idea of the Orwellian universe she was entering when she took the job, but underestimated its intensity and scope. [Continue reading…]

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Hacked emails reveal Russian plans to obtain sensitive Western tech

The Intercept reports: In April 2014, Viktor Tarasov wrote to the head of Ruselectronics, a Russian state-owned holding company, about a critical shortage of military equipment. The Russian military lacked thermal imaging systems — devices commonly used to detect people and vehicles — and Tarasov believed that technology might be needed soon because of the “increasingly complex situation in the southeast of Ukraine and the possible participation of Russian forces” to stabilize the region.

Tarasov, in charge of Ruselectronics’ optical tech subsidiary, was hoping that the head of Ruselectronics would write to the minister of defense for armaments to advance his company 150 million rubles, then about $4 million, to buy 500 microbolometer arrays, a critical component of thermal imaging devices. The money, Tarasov wrote, would allow the company to buy the equipment under a current contract from a French company without the need for signing a new “end-use certificate,” which requires the buyer to disclose the final recipient.

Time was of the essence, he warned, because the West was preparing another round of sanctions against Russia that would slow the purchases and increase costs. Tarasov also claimed that the United States was already providing similar equipment to Ukrainian forces. (Pentagon spokesperson Eileen Lainez confirmed that the Department of Defense had provided thermal imaging devices and night-vision goggles to Ukraine in 2014, along with a variety of other military equipment). [Continue reading…]

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Russia bans ‘undesirable’ international organisations ahead of 2016 elections

The Guardian reports: Russia’s parliament has passed a law banning “undesirable” international organisations, raising fears of a further crackdown on voices critical of the Kremlin.

According to the legislation, the prosecutor general and foreign ministry can register as undesirable any “foreign or international organisation that presents a threat to the defensive capabilities or security of the state, to the public order, or to the health of the population”.

Blacklisted groups will be forbidden from operating branches or distributing information in Russia and banks will have to notify the prosecutor general and justice ministry of any financial transfers involving them. Although the language of the threat posed was vague, the bill’s authors suggested that international NGOs often work in the interests of foreign intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]

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New Putin invasion coming this summer

Michael Weiss James Miller write: The war in Ukraine may have faded largely from international headlines, but Vladimir Putin’s drip-drip invasion continues. In the last two weeks, forensic evidence, some of which has been reported by monitor organizations and senior Western diplomats, the rest corroborated by eyewitness photography and video, only confirms what the U.S. fears most: A summer offensive is inevitable.

On May 5, the Ukrainian government released new data which says that they have lost 28 towns to Russian-backed separatists since February 18. That was the day the strategic town of Debaltsevo, which guarded a key highway to separatist-controlled regions, slipped from Ukraine’s control. The map of separatist territory is as alarming as it is illustrative, especially when it is combined with the daily reports of ceasefire violations and fighting coming out of both the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Kiev.

On May 6, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed the National Security and Defense Council and warned that Russia has 50,000 troops on the border and its proxies have more than 40,000 fighters inside the country. That’s not only a combined 50% increase in possible invaders over July of last year, the month which proceeded the “Russian invasion” on the Ukrainian mainland. It’s more than enough soldiers to invade and gobble up a significant amount of Ukrainian territory. [Continue reading…]

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