Category Archives: Cyber

Jeff Sessions Met Twice With Russian Ambassador During Trump Campaign

Mother Jones

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And now here comes the Washington Post on contacts between the Trump team and Russia:

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.

….Officials said Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.

That was Mike Flynn’s initial answer too, wasn’t it? That he “didn’t remember” the details of a conversation from less than half a year ago. I wonder how long Sessions’ version will hold up?

Can we all now agree that maybe Sessions really does need to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia?

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Jeff Sessions Met Twice With Russian Ambassador During Trump Campaign

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Russian Hackers May Now Be Mucking With European Elections

Mother Jones

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When the US intelligence community released a report in early January laying out the evidence for Russian meddling in the US election, US officials warned that this wasn’t a one-off attack, and that Russia could soon set its hacker corps loose to disrupt elections in other countries. “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future efforts worldwide,” the report said, “including against US allies and their election processes.”

Putin didn’t wait long to fulfill that prediction. On February 22, the Moscow Times reported that the Russian government had “created a new military unit to conduct ‘information operations’ against Russia’s foes.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, when announcing the unit, that “propaganda should be smart, competent and effective.” There’s no concrete evidence yet, but it appears that Russia may be now attempting to weaken NATO and to divide Europe by destabilizing elections in France and Germany, two of the EU’s strongest members.

“This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it,” Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s minister of foreign affairs, said on February 19 in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, a French newspaper. “The French will not accept that their choices are dictated to them,” he said while discussing Russian actions in Europe and attempts to weaken non pro-Russian candidates ahead of the country’s presidential election in May.

Ayrault was responding to reports that the Russian government may have been targeting the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, a centrist “pro-liberal and pro-Europe” candidate who has a chance of defeating Marine Le Pen, a right-wing nationalist, in the hotly contested French presidential elections this May. Le Pen has promised to pull France out of the European Union, and, much like Donald Trump, has advocated a better relationship with the Russian government. Macron’s campaign has said its computer systems have been attacked, and that “fake news”—that include allegations of a homosexual affair and attempts to connect Macron with American financial interests and Hillary Clinton—has been spread throughout France by Russian-owned media, such as Sputnik and RT.

Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at UCLA and an expert on Russian politics, says “it certainly seems plausible” that the Russian government would attempt to interfere in the European elections, as it’s alleged to have done in the US.

“Putin is quite skeptical about the possibility of building strong friendships or cooperation in the future with the elites of western Europe,” Treisman tells Mother Jones. “He feels that they’ve taken a very anti-Russian line, so he’s reaching out to other forces who are also opposed to the European elites.” Among those so-called Western European elites, are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Macron in France. Part of Putin’s plan could be to keep the west distracted “with its own problems” so it is “less able to cohesively oppose what he’s done in Ukraine,” Treisman says.

The French government’s top figures reportedly had internal discussions about cyber threats to its presidential election, and earlier this year the official in charge of security for the nation’s ruling party told Politico that the country’s leading politicians and political campaigns “have received no awareness training at all about espionage and hacking,” and that “we are not at all up to the level of the potential threat.” The Russian government has denied that it is working to meddle in the French elections, just as it denied meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

“We didn’t have, and do not have, any intention of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” Kremlin spokesman Dmirtry Peskov told reporters on February 14. “That there is a hysterical anti-President Vladimir Putin campaign in certain countries abroad is an obvious fact.”

Worries aren’t limited to the French elections, which will be held in April and May. The head of the German foreign intelligence service said in November that its next election cycle could be buffeted with the same sort of misinformation and cyber-attacks that plagued the US elections. “We have evidence that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty,” said Bruno Kahl, the president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (the German foreign intelligence service), according to the Guardian. Angela Merkel said at the time that “such cyber-attacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them.” Merkel’s hard line against Putin in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and strong support of the European Union are among the reasons that she could be targeted by Russia before her reelection vote in September.

And in the Netherlands, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told Politico on January 12 that he didn’t have “concrete evidence” interference had taken place, but he wasn’t “naive” to the fact that it could happen at some point ahead of that country’s March 15 election, wherein Rutte is being challenged by Geert Wilders. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the Russian government, among other countries, had “tried hundreds of times in recent months to penetrate the computers of Dutch government agencies and businesses.”

Far-right MP Wilders—a vehement opponent of Islam and a strong contender to be the Netherlands next prime minister—has also called for leaving the EU, but he may not be as pro-Putin as Le Pen and Trump. Nevertheless, Dutch officials have said they will count all election ballots by hand due to worries about manipulation of electronic vote counting machines.

Treisman says what happens next in terms of Russia and the European elections is “all up in the air, in part because we don’t know what the US administration is going to end up doing” with regard to its policy toward Russia.

Trump has repeatedly said that he’s hoping for a good working relationship with Putin, but offered mixed and confusing signals during the campaign about what he thought about Putin’s actions in the Ukraine and his annexing of Crimea in 2014. During her first full day on the job, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned Russian violence in eastern Ukraine and called for “an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea.” Trump has rattled European allies by praising Brexit and calling NATO “obsolete,” but members of his cabinet have reaffirmed the US commitment to a strong NATO, which is one of Putin’s main points of contention with the west.

While it makes sense to watch all of this and try to discern a pattern in Putin’s strategy, Treisman says, “I don’t think he has this clear over-arching agenda, that he’s out to expand Russia’s borders or achieve anything very concrete. I think he’s just looking for ways to resist pressures he sees coming from the west and increase his influence, and his options, and his friends worldwide.”

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Russian Hackers May Now Be Mucking With European Elections

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Clinton Campaign Sent Fake Phishing Emails to Its Own Staff

Mother Jones

Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House will be remembered for many things, but information security isn’t likely to be one of them. Her campaign was buffeted by two major hacking episodes. First, the contents of Democratic National Committee servers were stolen and disseminated through WikiLeaks and other news organizations. Then campaign chairman John Podesta had his personal email account hacked and its contents passed to WikiLeaks, which subsequently released the 50,000-email set in chunks over a period of weeks as the presidential election reached fever pitch. The US government’s intelligence community went on to assert that the hacks had been orchestrated at the behest of the Russian government as a deliberate attempt to hurt Clinton’s chances and boost Donald Trump.

But Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign manager, said this week that the hacks didn’t hit the campaign itself, and that’s because the campaign conducted regular security training for staffers, including sending them fake phishing emails to see how they’d be handled.

“We sent out phishing emails of our own to test people and communicate back to team to see how far they were clicking, to educate people, and show their vulnerability and how much their choices matter,” Mook told Dark Reading, a cybersecurity news website, while attending an information security conference in San Francisco.

Mook said there were at least three phishing tests sent out to staffers, and there were also regular emails sent to staff preaching good IT practices. There were signs in the bathrooms “about not sharing passwords and ‘Don’t clink that link, stop and think,'” Mook said.

The Dark Reading piece doesn’t address when the training took place or whether Podesta and his aides were involved. Podesta and Mook did not respond to requests for comment about the IT training during the campaign.

A phishing attack is an attempt to trick a victim into giving up personal information, including logins for email accounts, bank accounts, and other sensitive information. In Podesta’s case, hackers sent a phony warning from Google alerting him that his Gmail password needed to be reset. According to the New York Times, a campaign IT staffer inadvertently advised Podesta and his aides that the warning was legitimate. By using the fake password reset page, Podesta gave the hackers access to his Gmail account and years’ worth of political communications that eventually found their way to WikiLeaks via the Russian operation, according to the US government.

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Clinton Campaign Sent Fake Phishing Emails to Its Own Staff

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Text Messages Might Be the New Way Hackers Try to Steal Your Info

Mother Jones

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Back in 2014, Mexico became the first nation to pass a sugary-drinks tax, overcoming massive pushback from the soda industry. Big Soda resisted the tax for good reason—Mexico boasts the globe’s second-highest per capita soda consumption (trailing only Chile), and Coca-Cola and Pepsi together account for more than 60 percent of the market.

And now, in a strange twist, comes the revelation that several of the most prominent public-health experts who promoted the tax were targeted last summer by malicious spyware from NSO Group—”an Israeli cyberarms dealer that sells its digital spy tools exclusively to governments and that has contracts with multiple agencies inside Mexico,” reports the New York Times.

The attacks came in the form of text messages from unknown numbers with compelling but fake appeals to click infected links: stuff like, “your daughter has been in a serious accident,” with a purported link to a hospital. Once the link is clicked and the phone is hacked, the spyware can “trace a target’s every phone call, text message, email, keystroke, location, sound and sight,” even capturing “live footage off their cameras.”

The cyberattacks, which occurred during the summer of 2016, came just as the researchers were engaged in an ultimately failed campaign to double the tax, the Times notes.

At this point, the source of the attacks is unclear. A spokesperson for ConMéxico, Big Soda’s powerful trade group in the country, told the Times that the industry had no knowledge of the hacks, adding that “frankly, it scares us, too.”

NSO Group, for its part, claims it sells its spyware only to governmental law enforcement agencies, and maintains “technical safeguards that prevent clients from sharing its spy tools,” the Times reports, adding that an NSO spokesman “reiterated those restrictions in a statement on Thursday, and said the company had no knowledge of the tracking of health researchers and advocates inside Mexico.”

While NSO Group says its spyware is designed to be used by governments to track terrorists, criminals, and drug lords, these revelations don’t mark the first time these tools have been turned on other targets, according to the Times: “NSO spyware was discovered on the phone of a human-rights activist in the United Arab Emirates and a prominent Mexican journalist in August.” That journalist, investigative reporter Rafael Cabrera—who has broken several embarrassing stories about President Enrique Peña Nieto—was the target of an unsuccessful hacking attempt with NSO software last year.

So just as Mexico has emerged as a policy laboratory for reducing soda consumption, it is also demonstrating some pretty innovative tools for keeping tabs on anti-soda agitators. And delivering an important reminder: Think hard before you click on a link texted to you from an unknown number, no matter how compelling the story is.

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Text Messages Might Be the New Way Hackers Try to Steal Your Info

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Nine People Say Mike Flynn Lied About His Phone Calls With the Russian Ambassador

Mother Jones

The routine lying by the Trump administration is just beyond belief. Mike Flynn has consistently denied that he talked to the Russian ambassador in December about President Obama’s sanctions against Russia, but apparently he did exactly that. Here are Greg Miller, Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima in the Washington Post tonight:

Flynn on Wednesday denied that he had discussed sanctions with Sergey Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.” On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

….The emerging details contradict public statements by incoming senior administration officials including Mike Pence…Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

All of those officials said ­Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president. “Kislyak was left with the impression that the sanctions would be revisited at a later time,” said a former official.

A third official put it more bluntly, saying that either Flynn had misled Pence or that Pence misspoke. A spokesman for Pence did not respond to a request for comment. The sanctions in question have so far remained in place.

Nine officials! And every one of them says Flynn explicitly talked about the sanctions that Obama levied on Russia as retaliation for their cyber-hacking during the campaign. The message: don’t worry about it. We’ve got your back.

Do these guys ever tell the truth? About anything?

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Nine People Say Mike Flynn Lied About His Phone Calls With the Russian Ambassador

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