Cyberwars: Is Putin Going to Cut Off Russia’s Internet?

Russia ButtonFew politicians today elicit the same level of controversy as Vladimir Putin. Adored by many Russians at home and abroad, he is also reviled by many for his near-absolute grip on power, intimidation of political opponents, political repression, and military aggression against neighboring states. But in this latest coup de grace, Putin may be seeking the kind of power that few modern states enjoy – the ability to shut down his country’s access to the internet.

According to the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, Putin and his security council met this past Monday to discuss a way to disconnect Russia’s internet should it be deemed necessary. According to various sources, it is a tool that could be enacted in times of war, massive anti-government protests, or in order to “protect” Russians from Western countries like the United States or members of the European Union.

putin-sanctions-west-response.si_Citing an intelligence officer as their source, Vedomosti claims that this is the result of the Ministry of Communications conducting exercises to test vulnerabilities in Russia’s internet and can now successfully disable IP addresses outside of Russia. All of this is being done in order to see if the Runet (Russia’s internet) can operate on its own without Western web access, with the hope that it will be functional next year.

It is not hard to imagine the Kremlin justifying such a clamp-down by whipping up fears that it’s the West that wants to disconnect Russia from the web, said industry experts. In Russia’s current political environment, anti-western propaganda has been used effectively to create the impression of a siege mentality, used largely to justify their current economic woes and the ongoing Ukrainian Crisis.

RunetAnalysts say similar measures have been introduced by countries such as Iran and Cuba, which developed national Internet limits to curb the spread of Western culture and ideas. Prior to the meeting, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the Security Council meeting on Internet security would be taking place, but he declined to discuss details of the agenda.

In addition, he denied that Russian authorities have plans to disconnect the Internet, instead insisting this is a question for other countries to answer. He also added that Russia needs a way to protect itself from the West. Peskov cited the “unpredictability” of the European Union and the United States before implying that these countries would in fact disconnect Russia from the Internet and not the reverse.

russia-internet-putin-670-1In a statement to Russia Today – a government-run website launched in 2005 by Putin as a “PR campaign to improve [Russia’s] image in the eyes of the world.”- Russia’s communications minister, Nikolay Nikiforov, said:

Russia is being addressed in a language of unilateral sanctions: first, our credit cards are being cut off; then the European Parliament says that they’ll disconnect us from SWIFT*. In these circumstances, we are working on a scenario where our esteemed partners would suddenly decide to disconnect us from the internet.

*Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication

The “unilateral sanctions” he refers to are the ones that were placed upon Russia by the US and the EU in response to its seizure of the Crimea, which have since escalated thanks to Russia’s ongoing involvement in the eastern portions of Ukraine where rebels – whom many claim have been supplied with Russian-made weapons and are now being supported by Russian troops – continue to fight against the new Kiev government.

Ukraine_crisisInterestingly enough, whether it is the West that disconnects Russia from the Internet or if it is Putin that does so, both possibilities highlight the world’s dependence on Western internet. In fact, many countries, including Brazil and Germany, have been complaining about this since Edward Snowden’s revelations last year. Putin himself has expressed concern over the NSA spying on him via the web and the security of the internet in his country in the past.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether or not it could be done. According to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian spy expert who recently spoke to the Guardian on the subject, claims that it is technically possible given how few internet exchange points Russia has. However, it seems unlikely at this point that Putin would do this given the repercussions for Russian businesses that rely on the Western internet to function.

russia_protestsAlready, Russia has been feeling the pinch because of Western sanctions, particularly sanctions targeting its oil industry that have been leading to a drop in prices. At this rate, several economists and even Russian ministers are predicting a recession in the near future. This in turn could present Putin with a scenario whereby he would have to disconnect the internet, in order to block mass protests sites in the event of people protesting the economic downturn.

Similar measures have been taken in the past by countries like Egypt, Iran, Syria, China, the UK, and Thailand, who chose to block Facebook at various points because protesters were using it to organize. Venezuela also blocked Twitter this year during times of political unrest to prevent people from sharing information and real-time updates. But a total disconnect has yet to be seen, or even seriously contemplated.

russia-censorshipWhether or not Putin and Russia’s ruling party is the first to do so remains to be seen. But it is not entirely unfeasible that he wouldn’t, even if economic consequences were entailed. For as the saying goes, people will “cut off their nose to spite their face”, and Putin has already shown a willingness to challenge his country’s economic interdependence with the world in order to ensure control over neighboring territories.

One can only hope that he won’t feel the need to snip his country’s connection to the rest of the world. In addition to ensuring its ec0nomic isolation – which would have dire consequences and reduce the country to the status of a developing nation – it will also resurrect the specter of the Cold War years where Russians were effectively cut off from the outside world and entirely dependent on state-controlled media.

We’ve simply come too far to go back to an age where two superpowers are constantly aiming nuclear warheads at each other and entire blocs of nations are forbidden to trade or interact with each other because of political rivalries. History does not respect regression, and the only way to make progress is to keep moving forward. So let’s keep the internet open and focus on building connections instead of walls!

Source: motherboard.com, news.discovery.com, ibtimes.com

Cyberwars: Latest Snowden Leaks

FRANCE-US-EU-SURVEILLANCE-SNOWDENThe case against the NSA’s program of cyberwarfare and espionage has become somewhat like an onion. With every new revelation, the matter becomes more stinking and fetid. Certainly, the first release of classified NSA documents – which dealt with the US’s ongoing cyberwarfare against China and other nations – was damaging to the agency’s image. But it has been the subsequent publication of documents that deal with domestic surveillance that have been the most damning.

According to Snowden, he was motivated to leak this information because of the troubling case of hypocrisy inherent in the NSA programs. And in the lastest leak, Snowden has now confirmed that at least five Muslim-Americans – including prominent lawyers, a civil rights leader and academics – were the subject of years’ worth of surveillance by both the FBI and the National Security Agency.

under_surveillance_full_v2Among the targets were Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – the top Muslim-American civil rights organization in the United States – and Faisal Galil, a longtime Republican operative and former Bush Administration official who worked for the Department of Homeland Security and held a top-secret security clearance during the time he was under surveillance.

Also among the American targets was Asim Ghafoor, an attorney for the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation who who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases . He is also the man who famously discovered in 2004 that he and his clients were under surveillance after the Treasury Department mistakenly released to him a document listing calls he’d made to his clients.

wire_tappingOther targets include Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University and Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights. All of the targets appear to have been singled out because of their Muslim backgrounds and their activities either defending Muslim clients or on behalf of various causes.

The individuals appear on an NSA spreadsheet in the Snowden archives called “FISA recap”—short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that law, the Justice Department must convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to suspect of an American of being engaged in or abetting terrorism, espionage, or sabotage against the US.

FILE PHOTO  NSA Compiles Massive Database Of Private Phone CallsThe authorizations must be regularly renewed by the court for the surveillance to remain in effect, usually every 90 days for U.S. citizens. In none of these cases were the individuals singled out for surveillance because they were suspected of committing or planning a crime. And six years after the period the document covers, none of them has been charged with any crime related to the surveillance.

Greenwald says the revelations offer a more detailed look at who the government is targeting. Although there are some Americans on the list who have been accused of terrorism, the five highlighted in The Intercept piece have all led what appear to be law-abiding lives. As Greenwald explained:

This is the first time that there’s a human face on who the targets are of their most intrusive type of surveillance. [H]ere you really get to see who these people are who are the people worthy of their most invasive scrutiny. I think it’s important for people to judge—are these really terrorists or are these people who seem to be targeted for their political dissidence and their political activism?

 

faisal_gillAll of these five individuals identified in the article has gone on record to vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage. Outside of their ancestry, there appears to be no justification whatsoever for the surveillance. Faisal Gill, whose AOL and Yahoo! email accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, had this to say when interview by The Intercept:

I just don’t know why. I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community—I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.

Ghafoor was also of the opinion that profiling had everything to do with him being targeted for electronic surveillance. When told that no non-Muslim attorneys who defended terror suspects had been identified on the list, he replied:

I believe that they tapped me because my name is Asim Abdur Rahman Ghafoor, my parents are from India. I travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and I do the pilgrimage. Yes, absolutely I believe that had something to do with it.

https://i0.wp.com/media.nj.com/ledgerupdates_impact/photo/2012/06/muslim-lawsuitjpg-88e364e9b8e195f4.jpgCivil liberties groups have expressed anger that the five appear to have been targeted largely for having Muslim backgrounds. One such group is the Muslim Advocates, which released the following statement shortly after the story was published:

This report confirms the worst fears of American Muslims: the federal government has targeted Americans, even those who have served their country in the military and government, simply because of their faith or religious heritage. Muslim Advocates calls on the President and Congress to take steps immediately to reform the NSA surveillance program to uphold basic privacy rights and civil liberties that the Constitution guarantees to every American, regardless of faith.

The new revelations confirm for the first time that the government targeted U.S. attorneys, sometimes without warrants. Crucially, the revelations also give targets of the domestic surveillance legal standing to sue. Snowden indicated to Greenwald last year that he included the target list in the cache of leaked documents because he wanted people who had been under such surveillance to have evidence to challenge the spying in court.

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in BerlinIn the past, journalists and attorneys have tried to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s surveillance activities in court. But since the defendants did not have proof that they in particular had been targeted, the courts were forced to rule that they did not have standing. The spreadsheet, however, provides evidence of targeted surveillance for those who have now been identified.

In short, this latest revelation has provided Americans, and not just those of Muslim descent, with the means to hold the NSA and the FBI accountable for the first time. Since the historic episode known as the “war on terror” began, revelations have led to challenges and promises for reform. But in all cases, the crucial issue of whether or not these programs would be allowed to continue has been carefully sidestepped.

cyber_security2Whether it was the failure of FISA reform to reign in domestic wiretapping and data mining, or the Obama administrations endorsement of “transparent” surveillance, it seems obvious clear that an administrative solution was not in the works. But opening the way for successive lawsuits for wrongful surveillance might just prove to be more effective.

What is certain, though, is that the battle between civil liberties and surveillance in the “Digital Age” is nowhere close to being resolved. As the daily volume of data sent around the world continues to grow – from terabytes to petabytes to exabytes – there will continually be a need for monitors to watch for sinister things. And as long as they are willing to push the boundaries in the name of security, there will continue to be challenges.

Sources: wired.com, firstlook.org

Cyberwars: Watching the US and China in Real-Time

norse-hacking-map-640x353Since the dawn of the internet age, there has been no shortage of stories about hackers, malware-peddling malcontents, online scams and identity theft. Add to that the growing consensus that wars in the future will be fought online through “cyberwarfare divisions”, and you can understand why such positive statements once made about the internet – like how it would bring the world together and create “a global village” – would seem incredibly naive now.

However, despite the prevalence of hacking and cyberwarfare-related fear, very few people have actually experienced what it is like. After all, the effects of hacking are mostly invisible to the untrained eye, with the exception of very-high-profile database breaches. Now, though, a security company has produced a fascinating geographic map that shows global hacking attempts in real-time. And of course, the ongoing battle between US and Chinese forces accounts for much of it.

norse-china-usa-hacking-smallerThe real-time map, maintained by the Norse security company, shows who’s hacking who and what attack vectors are being used. The data is sourced from a network of “honeypot” servers – essentially a juicy-looking target that turns out to be a trap -maintained by Norse, rather than real-world data from the Pentagon, Google, or other high-profile hacking targets. The Norse website has some info about its “honeynet,” but it’s understandably quite sparse on actual technical details.

If you watch the map for a little while, it’s clear that most attacks originate in either China or the US, and that the US is by far the largest target for hack attacks. You can also see that the type of hack used, indicated by the target port, is rather varied. Microsoft-DS (the port used for Windows file sharing) is still one of the top targets , but DNS, SSH, and HTTP are all very popular too. CrazzyNet and Black Ice – two common Windows backdoor programs often used by script kiddies and criminals – is also sure to pop up.

Unit-61398-Chinese-Army-Hacking-Jobs-With-Great-BenefitsOn occasion, the map is likely to show a big burst of coordinated attacks coming from China and directed towards the US. And while it is difficult to blame these attacks directly on the Chinese government (as they are adept at routing their attacks through other servers) government and independent researchers are confident the majority of these attacks are being directed by the People’s Liberation Army’s Unit 61398 – aka. the PLA’s cyberwarfare division.

A lot of hacks originate in the US, too, but their targets are much more varied. And in cases where Chinese facilities (or other nations that are nominally identified as hostile to the US) you can bet that the US Cyber Command at Fort Meade is behind the lot of them. But the map is still limited in that it uses Norse’s own honeypot operations to identify these attacks, and it therefore cannot be said with absolute certainty that real attacks happen in the same fashion.

nsa_aerialBut a general picture of the size and shape of global hacking and cyberwarfare can be divined by looking at the stats. Back in 2012, the US DOD reported that it was the target of 10 million cyber attacks per day. Likewise, the National Nuclear Security Administration says it saw 10 million attacks per day in 2012. In 2013, BP’s CEO said it sees 50,000 cyber attacks per day, and the UK reported around 120,000 attacks per day back in 2011.

While the extent and purpose of these attacks certainly varies, it is pretty clear that hacking and cyberwarfare is a global problem and something that governments, corporations, and institutions need to pay attention to. Last year, the Obama administration’s announced that it would not sit idly by in the face of stepped up attacks from China. However, the subsequent testimony and document leaks by Snowden showed that the US has been conducting its own attacks the entire time (and even beforehand).

And such is the nature of war, regardless of the context or the weapons used. States rattle their swords claiming they will not tolerate aggression, but there is always a fine line between maintaining one’s defenses and escalating a situation to the point that mutual destruction becomes inevitable. Perhaps the people who are currently fighting this alleged cyberwar should look to the past – specifically to the First World War and the Cold War – to see just how effective “arms races” are!

Source: extremetech.com, map.ipviking.com

Cyberwars: ACLU and NSA ex-Director to Debate Tomorrow!

keith-alexander-nsa-flickrIn what is sure to be a barn-burner of a debate, the former head of the National Security Agency – General Keith Alexander – will be participating tomorrow in a with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. The televised, surveillance-themed debate, will take place tomorrow –  June 30th, 10:30am Eastern Time – on MSNBC. The subject: whether or not the NSA’s vast surveillance and data mining programs are making American’s safer.

While many would prefer that the current head of the NSA be involved in the debate, General Alexander is a far better spokesperson for the controversial programs that have been the subject of so much controversy. After all, “Emperor Alexander” – as his subordinates called him – is the man most directly responsible for the current disposition of the  NSA’s cyber surveillance and warfare program.Who better to debate their merit with the head of the ACLU – an organization dedicated to the preservation of personal freedom?

Edward-Snowden-660x367And according to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, General Alexander’s influence and power within the halls of government knew no bounds during his tenure. A four-star Army general with active units under his command, he was also the head of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and the commander of the US Cyber Command. It is this last position and the power it wields that has raised the greatest consternation amongst civil-libertarians and privacy advocates.

Keith Alexander is responsible for building this place up between 2005 and 2013, insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks required that he and those like him assume more authority over the data zipping around the globe. According to Alexander, this threat is so paramount that it only makes sense that all power to control the flow of information should be concentrated in as few hands as possible, namely his.

NSA_fort_meadeIn a recent security conference held in Canada before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Alexander expressed the threat in the following, cryptic way:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

If this alone were not reason enough to put people on edge, there are also voices within the NSA who view Alexander as a quintessential larger-than-life personality. One former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, claimed:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets. We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

And it is because of such freedom to monitor people’s daily activities that movements like the February 11th “The Day We Fight Back” movement – an international cause that embraced 360 organizations in 70 countries that were dedicated to ending mass surveillance – have been mounted, demanding reform.

us_supremecourtIn addition, a series of recent ruling from the US Supreme Court have begun to put the kibosh on the surveillance programs that Alexander spent eight years building up. With everything from cell phone tracking to cell phone taps, a precedent is being set that is likely to outlaw all of the NSA domestic surveillance. But no matter what, the role of Snowden’s testimony in securing this landmark event cannot be underestimated.

In fact, in a recent interview, the ACLU’s Anthony Romero acknowledged a great debt to Snowden and claimed that the debate would not be happening without him. As he put it:

I think Edward Snowden has done this country a service… regardless of whether or not what he did was legal or illegal, whether or not we think the sedition laws or the espionage laws that are being used to possibly prosecute Snowden are too broad, the fact is that he has kick-started a debate that we did not have. This debate was anemic. Everyone was asleep at the switch.

One can only imagine what outcome this debate will have. But we can rest assured that some of the more predictable talking points will include the necessities emerging out of the War on Terror, the rise of the information revolution, and the dangers of Big Brother Government, as well as the NSA’s failure to prevent such attacks as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Benghazi Embassy bombing, and a slew of other terrorist incidents that took place during Alexander’s tenure.

Do I sound biased? Well perhaps that’s because I am. Go ACLU, stick to Emperor Alexander!

Sources: engadget.com, democracynow.org