Updates On Cambridge Analytica

(1)  Score one for the Democrats on the House Intel Committee

The whistleblower who publicly revealed how Trump-affiliated data firm Cambridge Analytica used information mined from Facebook under false pretenses during the 2016 election cycle will give an interview to Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee as part of their investigation of Russian interference in the election, including possible ties to Donald Trump’s campaign.

A lawyer for Christopher Wylie confirmed Tuesday that Wylie plans to accept the invitation from the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.).

Schiff said Monday that panel Democrats want to talk to Wylie to determine where and how the Facebook data was stored and used, and whether others — including Russian operatives — had access to it.

“Indeed, it may be that through Cambridge Analytica, the Trump campaign made use of illegitimately-acquired data on millions of Americans to help sway the election,” Schiff said in a statement.

Democrats on the House panel vowed last week to continue to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, despite the committee’s Republican leaders announcing that they had completed a draft report about the panel’s findings. The panel is expected to approve a final version of that report Thursday, although it will not be released publicly until the intelligence community reviews it and makes any necessary redactions.

House Democrats do not have independent power to subpoena witnesses to testify. But Wylie has been outspoken about how Cambridge Analytica — a company he helped build, according to a profile in the Guardian — planned to use the Facebook users’ data and an algorithm to build “psychographic” profiles that could be used to predict the political leanings of every potential American voter.

Facebook gave permission to University of Cambridge psychologist Aleksandr Kogan to access information on 270,000 users of the social media site to help build a quiz app called “thisisyourdigitallife.” But the app’s reach went much further, ultimately allowing Kogan to access data on 50 million users. The information was passed on to Cambridge Analytica and Wylie, breaking the terms struck with Facebook for access to the data. Facebook found out about the events in 2015, but was told that Cambridge Analytica, Wylie and Kogan had deleted the data. Several days ago, Facebook discovered that they had not.

Last year, the House Intelligence Committee spoke with Wylie’s former boss Alexander Nix — the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica — by videoconference, as Nix is located in London.

Schiff stressed in his invitation to Wylie that his accounts of Cambridge Analytica’s data operations “raise serious questions about the veracity of the testimony” Nix gave to the committee.

This is gratifying for a couple of reasons. First, and most obviously, we might get some information on any Russia connection (Kogan being well-connected to Russia).

Secondly, it demonstrates how the Republicans on the House Intel Committee forced a premature ending to their investigation of Trump-Russia collusion. Might the Cambridge Analytica avenue be a dead end?  Perhaps. But it needs investigating, and since the House Intel Committee already saw fit to interview Nix, then Wylie’s testimony is also relevant.

(2) North Carolina GOP REALLY had ties to Cambridge Analytica

The North Carolina Republican party and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) paid the controversial British data firm Cambridge Analytica $345,000 for a direct mail campaign and consulting work, the News & Observer reported Monday.

Cambridge Analytica, which the Trump campaign used during the 2016 election, has recently come under fire after reports that it illegally obtained the private Facebook profiles of 50 million people, but there is no indication that the firm used any data from the breach in their work with the North Carolina Republicans.

The firm consulted Tillis on his successful 2014 campaign.

Dallas Woodhouse, the state’s GOP executive director, said the firm did not work on social media for the party and that the party does not plan to hire them again.

Facebook suspended Cambridge Analytica on Friday following reports that it had violated its privacy policy.

An undercover investigation by London’s Channel 4 secretly filmed the CEO of the firm saying that he used bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians in compromising situations.

Cambridge Analytica has denied using bribes, entrapment “or so-called honey-traps” and said that it did not use data harvested from Facebook profiles for the Trump campaign.

The firm has also said that, contrary to reports, it deleted all the Facebook data it had accumulated.

Yup. North Carolina GOP was one of CA’s biggest non-presidential race clients. In fact, the NC GOP was the only state party client of Cambridge Analytica. It was the firm’s fourth-largest client in 2014.  These are the payments to CA from June 2014 to December 2016, according to FEC filings.

I wish we could find out exactly what it was FOR, but given the NC GOP’s penchant for minority voter suppression, I can give an educated guess.

Your Facebook Data, Cambridge Analytica, and Russia: Was There Collusion?

During an interview on TODAY this morning, Christopher Wylie, a former employee of U.K.-based data analytics company Cambridge Analytica, revealed the company worked with two key Trump campaign aides prior to President Donald Trump’s candidacy.

“Cambridge Analytica was meeting with Corey Lewandowski in 2015 before Trump had even announced and offering the services that I’m talking about right now,” Wiley said, referring to Trump’s first campaign manager.

Wiley also confirmed what a New York Times investigation revealed over the weekend, that Cambridge Analytica “harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission…making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history.”

The data obtained through Facebook was used to microtarget specific voters in order to persuade them to vote for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

As Wylie described it Monday morning:

This data was used to create profiling algorithms that would allow us to explore mental vulnerabilities of people and then map out ways to inject information into different streams or channels of content online so that people started to see things that may or may not be true. This is a company that took fake news to the next level.

Not only was that data used for microtargeting voters, Wiley claimed, but by tracking the response to those messages in real time on social media, the firm could advise the campaign where Trump should visit and what words would resonate most with voters in the region. In fact, Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Donald Trump and executive chairman of Breitbart News, told Bloomberg in late October of 2016, “I wouldn’t have come aboard, even for Trump, if I hadn’t known they were building this massive Facebook and data engine. Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”

Bannon previously served as Cambridge Analytica’s vice president before joining the Trump campaign.

Many of its methods were exposed in a recent piece from The Guardian that profiled Wylie, who along with consulting company Strategic Communication Laboratories (which is the parent to Cambridge Analytica) and University of Cambridge professor Dr. Aleksandr Kogan had their accounts suspended by Facebook on Friday night. Facebook is also looking into the ties between one of its employees, Joseph Chancellor, and Global Science Research, a company that helped Cambridge Analytica, according to CNN.

Cambridge Analytica, which is backed by billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer, is already under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for possible connections to Russian interference in the election. It’s also under investigation by the U.K. Parliament for potential violations of data privacy and claims it did illegal work for the pro-Brexit campaign.

Facebook, in an unprecedented move Saturday, moved to suspend Cambridge Analytica from the social media site following the bombshell reports about the data breach. Facebook VP and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal has accused the firm of running “a scam and a fraud,” as he described it to the Times. However, he pushed back on claims of a data breach.

“The claim that this is a data breach is completely false,” Grewal said in a statement.

Wiley was also banned from Facebook this weekend.

One Facebook executive, Andrew Bosworth, took to Twitter to defend his company.

The full extent of Cambridge Analytica’s role in the controversy is unlikely to be known until Mueller completes his investigation.  But the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is looking into the matter.

Of note, Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly reports that Cambridge Analtyica and Russian bots used the same strategy to suppress voter turnout —

What Mueller and his team of investigators will be interested in is whether or not there was a connection between this voter profiling with the kind of intrusion into social media he has already included in recent indictments of Russians.

One clue that might merely be coincidence is the timing. Here is what we learn from the indictment:

Starting at least in or around 2014, Defendants and their co-conspirators began to track and study groups on U.S. social media sites dedicated to U.S. politics and social issues. In order to gauge the performance of various groups on social media sites, the ORGANIZATION tracked certain metrics like the group’s size, the frequency of content placed by the group, and the level of audience engagement with that content, such as the average number of comments or responses to a post.

According to Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who is the main source for the article linked above, he met Steve Bannon in the fall of 2013 and by 2014 their work was underway.

But there is another confluence of events that is even more interesting. Back in October 2016, just days before the election, Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg did some reporting on the Trump campaign and the work of Cambridge Analytica in particular. Here is how they described their strategy at the time:

Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans…

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

Those Facebook “dark posts” seem to be a favorite tool used by Parscale and the Cambridge Analytica consultants. I’d bet that we haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how those were used during the campaign. But compare the above to what the Mueller investigation included in their indictment of the Russian bots.

In or around the latter half of 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through their ORGANIZATION-controlled personas, began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.

In other words, in the final stages of the 2016 election, both the Trump campaign and the Russian bots engaged in a voter suppression strategy with core Clinton supporters. Is it possible that was merely a coincidence? You tell me.

No collusion???

The good news is that the spotlight is on this. CNN reports this about Aleksandr Kogan:

The data scientist who gathered information on millions of Americans for Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data firm that worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, says he would be happy to testify before Congress and speak to the FBI about the work he did for the company. Aleksandr Kogan made the remarks in an email he sent to colleagues at Cambridge University this weekend that was obtained by CNN.

“I’ve also seriously been asked if the FBI has reached out, if the two congressional committees in the United States have reached out, and if Parliament or any authorities in the UK have reached out. No one has—I suspect they realize I’m actually not a spy. Though if anyone does, I’d be more than happy to testify and speak candidly about the project,” he wrote in the email.

Kogan’s company provided data on millions of Americans to Cambridge Analytica beginning in 2014. The data was gathered through a personality test Facebook application built by Kogan. When Facebook users took the test they gave Kogan access to their data, including demographic information about them like names, locations, ages and genders, as well as their page “likes,” and some of their Facebook friends’ data.

Facebook says that Kogan told them he was gathering the data for academic purposes and that by providing the data to Cambridge Analytica he had breached Facebook policy. On Friday, Facebook suspended both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica from its platform. The suspension came ahead of reporting in The New York Times and The Observer in London on Saturday that alleged Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted the data when it was asked to do so by Facebook in 2015 — a claim Cambridge Analytica denies.

“It’s been honestly a surreal week,” Kogan wrote to his colleagues, “I’ve been asked quite seriously by reporters from the NY Times and the Guardian if I am a Russian spy. I really tried to explain that one seems just silly. If I am Russian spy, I am the world’s dumbest spy.”

Facebook has accused Kogan of lying about why he was collecting the data, a claim Kogan disputes in the email, writing, “we never claimed during the project that it was for academic research. In fact, we did our absolute best not to have the project have any entanglements with the University.”

I’m sure we’ll learn more.  And at least one guy is. Using British law, he is suing Cambridge Analytica to get information on… himself. What it is, how it was collected, etc.  See the pleading below:

Wonder what he will find.

And finally, Channel 4 News, a British news program, went undercover as prospective clients to infiltrate Cambridge Analytica and gather evidence of some of the abuses of trust that the company was apparently perpetrating with this stolen data. That is scheduled to air in Englad at 7:00 pm GMT (or 3:00 pm EST, or about 13 minutes from now as I write this).

Both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook have threatened lawsuits against Channel 4 News if they air this segment.  Channel 4 has decided to take the chance and go forward with this highly anticipated exposé.

This is torn from the blog of John Bambenek, a security analyst and Republican candidate for Illinois State Senate, about his conversations with Guccifer 2.0 (G2).  The post is entitled MY CONVERSATIONS WITH GUCCIFER 2.0 & THE SURPRISING ELECTION INFLUENCE OPERATIONS.

As attention turns to threats facing 2018’s midterm elections, we’re learning hard lessons from what went down in 2016. (Plus, what we can except coming up) There were many aspects to my research and human intelligence operation exploring what exactly was going on behind the scenes, but this article focuses on only one, Guccifer 2.0.

So, there were lots of 2016 election related incidents. Just to name a few:

  • DNC got hacked
  • DCCC got hacked
  • John Podesta’s email got hacked

We know there were four primary election outlets, including Wikileaks, Guccifer 2.0, DC Leaks and Internet Research Agency. Quick org chart breakdown here:

With these leaks, I turned my attention to Guccifer 2.0, who showed up (timely) after Guccifer 1.0 was arrested for cyber crime. Early on, G2 started dropping docs from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). As this is happening, I’m trying to wrap my head around exactly the kind of severity of threat we’re facing here. So, how do I get more info? Is it possible to now secure thousands of independent election jurisdictions? (Gave up on this, but more on that later) So, how do you collect data on a super-secret information operation? The old-fashioned way, of course. Chat them up.

The Dilemma: How do you develop a fully backstopped persona on short notice to start eliciting a foreign intelligence operative?

Spoiler Alert: You play on their own biases.

Just like that, two months of exchanges between myself and G2 began. Normally, you wouldn’t expose your identity to the “bad guy,” but this exchange was very different. They already knew exactly who I was.

Four Main Takeaways:

  1. They should have already known who I was and that I was researching election related issues.
  2. Whatever information they had, they were looking for media and, specifically, Republican officials to leak it to.
  3. My own identity was the best backdrop.
  4. No incremental risk from adversary if I was known.

Now you’re thinking, there’s no way this is going to work, right? Well, I was just as surprised as you are. Let’s delve in.


With a simple Google search, it would have come up that I’ve been investigating numerous breaches. (No evidence they had any idea until two months later) They did, however, look at the domain of my email (, which is my “political” domain.

Come to find out, the docs he had were worthless. G2 and WikiLeaks made no attempt to package a story. He didn’t release the same docs he sent me and started scrubbing metadata after being “caught” red handed.

After All This, What Are the Key Takeaways?

  • Guccifer 2.0 didn’t have a deep political understanding, making their efforts way less effective.
  • They didn’t attempt to package or create a narrative.
  • There were no apparent relationships with friendly journalists.
  • There was no “investment” in these operations and they made simple OPSEC mistakes (in part, using an unsupervised cutout)

So, What Can You Expect Next?

  • They got better over time – 2016’s influence op was luckier than it was sophisticated.
  • The US is vulnerable because of own doing. We even undermine our own institutions.
  • In politics, if you get under their skin, you get another helping. They’ll be invested next time.

This post was the basis of a lecture he just gave at the SAS2018 (the 2018 Security Analyst Summit being held right now in Cancun) — I’m sure his presentation was more colorful and detailed.  But it does make Guccifer 2.0 out to be a bit of a neophyte — a person (or persons) who can hack into places but not know what he grabbed.

Oh I Do NOT Like How This Sounds

Reuters Exclusive:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of a federal agency who has helped U.S. states protect election systems from possible cyber attacks by Russia or others is being removed from his post by Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and the White House.

Matthew Masterson, currently chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and a former Ohio state official, has been passed over for a second four-year term as one of the agency’s four commissioners, according to sources familiar with the matter.

It is up the House speaker to recommend a nominee for the commissioner post that Masterson currently holds, with the president then making a formal nomination.

Masterson has been a popular figure among state election officials, many of whom have praised his expertise and leadership on cyber security issues and expressed chagrin at his pending departure. The agency was created by Congress in 2002 to assist states in complying with federal election standards.

The action raises fresh questions over the degree to which Republican President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans who control Congress are taking steps to protect the security of American elections, and some state officials have accused them of doing too little to address the threat.

U.S. voters in November will go to the polls in midterm elections, which American intelligence officials have warned could be targeted by Russia or others seeking to disrupt the process.

I don’t know anything about this Masterson guy, but if he is one of the few government officials ACTUALLY worried about election hacking, then getting rid of him seems like a bad move.  Unless he is bad at his job, and I’m not sure I trust Ryan or Trump to make that assessment.

Here’s the real concern: the other Republican appointee on the EAC, Christy McCormick, could be tapped as the next chair. At a public EAC meeting in April 2017, she expressed skepticism about the urgency of election security. She also attacked DHS for designating elections as critical infrastructure.

Sarah Sanders Press Conference – 2/20/2018

Her first press conference since the shooting —

Asked about the tweet that the FBI would have got the killer if it hadn’t been focusing on “collusion”

Sanders is listing things that Trump is going to do re: mass shooting. Listening session with students, meeting with governors, etc. Sounds like a lot of talk.

Sanders says Trump opposes bump stocks. That is a reg thing, which means no new laws (statutes) coming out of Congress. Trump isn’t going to push for it either, because GOP.

She says “Unfortunately, when horrific tragedies like this happen, everybody wants a quick and a simple answer. But there isn’t one.”

Quick and simple? Sandy Hook was six years ago.  Orlando, last year. Las Vegas, this year. This isn’t a one-off event.

Well, that was a quick presser.


The Wall Street Journal reports:

The White House said Tuesday there was “an incident” last week which will be revealed in the coming days that will show how President Donald Trump is “tough on Russia.” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the comment at the daily briefing, but offered no more details. Trump has suggested on Twitter that President Barack Obama’s administration didn’t do enough to counter meddling in the 2016 election, and called himself “much tougher on Russia than Obama.”

I must have missed that. In any event, if we don’t know about it, it probably isn’t that big.

National Threat Assessment

It may not be in the news much today, but there is an important open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where the directors of the all the intelligence agencies testify:

Director Daniel R. Coats – Director of National Intelligence (DNI)
Director Michael Pompeo – Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Director Admiral Michael Rogers – Director of the National Security Agency (NSA)
Director Lieutenant General Robert Ashley – Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
Director Chris Wray – Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Director Robert Cardillo – Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)

I imagine the closed hearing that follows will be even more important.

Already there is news. Coats calls cyber threats “one of my greatest concerns and top priorities.” “Frankly,” he adds, “the United States is under attack” in cyberspace. In fact, every single intelligence agency head has said that there is no change in Russia’s interference in American politics. They are just as active now as they were over the last year.

This is DNi Coats’s “opening statement”:

This is troubling…

This is very interesting…

The Rob Porter issue continues to plague the White House — he did not have security clearance (because of the ex-wife abuse), yet he was handling documents to and from the President.  There are many questions to be raised about this. The White House’s position on the Porter background check was that it was an on-going process, so in key ways out of their hands. FBI Director Christopher Wray just confirmed that that is not true – that the check was mainly completed last year and that the file was officially closed in January, before any of the scandal broke. Here’s Dana Bash explaining.

Senator Angus King lashes out —

Speaking of things spy-like, three Russian intelligence chiefs came to US a couple of weeks ago.  This was mentioned in the American press, like the New York Times….

The two Russian officials who came to Washington were Alexander V. Bortnikov, who runs the Federal Security Bureau, the domestic intelligence service that is the successor to the K.G.B., and Sergey Naryshkin, the chief of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who was placed under sanctions by the American government under President Barack Obama.

…but in the RUSSIAN press, we learned that the head of the Russian GRU agency — they are the ones who hacked into the DNC data and stole data that had a massive affect on our election — also came.  He apparently wasn’t at the meeting with CIA Chief Pompeo. Why he was here and where he went is also a mystery.

Some think that the meeting was about terrorism which affects both countries.  Others think that the reason of terrorism was a pretext, and the Naryshkin delegation was likely sent to give info to help coordinate efforts to discredit Mueller’s Russia investigation.

No questions were asked about this by the Senate Intelligence Committee today in open session.  I HOPE it will be raised in closed session.

Trust The GOP, Do You?

Well, read this:

Political data gathered on more than 198 million US citizens was exposed this month after a marketing firm contracted by the Republican National Committee stored internal documents on a publicly accessible Amazon server.

The data leak contains a wealth of personal information on roughly 61 percent of the US population. Along with home addresses, birthdates, and phone numbers, the records include advanced sentiment analyses used by political groups to predict where individual voters fall on hot-button issues such as gun ownership, stem cell research, and the right to abortion, as well as suspected religious affiliation and ethnicity. The data was amassed from a variety of sources—from the banned subreddit r/fatpeoplehate to American Crossroads, the super PAC co-founded by former White House strategist Karl Rove.

Deep Root Analytics, a conservative data firm that identifies audiences for political ads, confirmed ownership of the data to Gizmodo on Friday.

Twitter Pushes Back On Trump Administration

Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Customs and Border Protection today. Twitter seeks an injunction barring them from asking for the identity of the person behind @alt_uscis.

It’s not clear what legal reason the Trump administration is seeking to identify @alt_uscis.  The @alt_uscis bio states: “Immigration resistance . Team 2.0 1/2 Not the views of DHS or USCIS. Old fellow drank russian soup.”  It could be a now-fired USCIS employee and they are looking for a leak, or maybe they just don’t like criticism.

Anyway, it is going to put this administration (as well as social media resistance) to a test.  Keep your eyes open.

Obama (Belatedly) Takes Action Against Russian Hackers

Moments ago, the Obama administration struck back at Russia, imposing sanctions against its intelligence apparatus and expelling 35 diplomats in retaliation for the alleged orchestration of hacking attacks designed to interfere in the presidential election.

The sweeping actions outlined by the White House three weeks before the new administration takes office include:

  • Shutting down two compounds, one in in Maryland and one in New York, “used by Russian personnel for intelligence-related purposes.”
  • Sanctions against the Russian intelligence services GRU and FSB, and four high-ranking officers of the GRU. The sanctions are also aimed at two suspected hackers, including one wanted by the FBI in two other cases, and three companies that allegedly provided support to the GRU’s cyber operations.
  • Releasing technical information about Russian cyber activity, “to help network defenders in the United States and abroad identify, detect, and disrupt Russia’s global campaign of malicious cyber activities.”

“These actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm U.S. interests in violation of established international norms of behavior,” President Obama said in a statement.

In his statement, Obama said the U.S. had declared 35 Russian “intelligence operatives” persona non grata. The State Department said the 35 are diplomats “who were acting in a manner inconsistent with their diplomatic or consular status” and accused Russia of harassing U.S. diplomats overseas.

As of noon on Friday, the U.S. also will bar Russian access to two Moscow-owned “recreational compounds,” the White House said. No further detail was provided, but since 1972, the Russians have owned a historic estate overlooking the Chester River in eastern Maryland. They also own a recreation facility in Glen Cove, Long Island.

The White House said the actions will go beyond those announced Thursday.

“We will continue to take a variety of actions at a time and place of our choosing, some of which will not be publicized,” Obama said in his statement.  Meaning, covert stuff.

Here’s a poster:

And here’s the FBI White Paper on the issue:

Paul Ryan throws in muted support saying, “While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia. And it serves as a prime example of this administration’s ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world.”

Moscow was quick to respond:

And whose side will President-elect Trump take? Obama’s?  Unlikely.  Ryan’s (“About time you terrible Obama person!”)?  Or Russia’s (“Nyet!!”)?

Anyone want to guess?

He’s quiet now but I doubt that’ll last.


Let’s Face It: The Way We Classify Documents Is F*cked

Another reason it is hard to get all bent out of shape about the Clinton email “scandal” came to me moments ago in the form of a Tweet I read:


We’ve got a system where things are overclassified, inconsistently classified, and incorrectly marked.

Look, it’s not like things got out there that are super super really secret.

What’s The Panama Papers All About?

The leak amounts to 2.6 terabytes of information — perhaps the largest whistleblower leak in history.  Also, it might topple a country or too.

So it might be interesting to learn what the Panama Papers leak is all about.

It starts with a company called Mossack Fonesca.  That’s a Panamanian law firm that has long been well-known to the global financial and political elite.  The firm’s operations are diverse and international in scope, but they originate in a single specialty — helping foreigners set up Panamanian shell companies to hold financial assets while obscuring the identities of their real owners. Since its founding in 1977, it’s expanded its interests outside of Panama to include more than 40 offices worldwide, helping a global client base work with shell companies not just in Panama but also the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and other notorious tax havens around the world.  The Panama Papers are leaks from that law firm.

What’s a shell company?  Well, sometimes a person or a well-known company or institution wants to buy things or own assets in a way that obscures who the real buyer is. For example, companies don’t like to tip their hand to what they are doing, and the use of shell companies to undertake not-ready-for-public-announcement projects can be a useful tool.  Shell companies are often used for simple privacy reasons. Real estate transactions, for example, are generally a matter of public record. So an athlete, actor, or other celebrity who wants to buy a house without his name and address ending up in the papers might want to pay a lawyer to set up a shell company to do the purchasing.

Here’s another way to put it, thanks to a Reddit user:

When you get a quarter you put it in the piggy bank. The piggy bank is on a shelf in your closet. Your mom knows this and she checks on it every once in a while, so she knows when you put more money in or spend it.

Now one day, you might decide “I don’t want mom to look at my money.” So you go over to Johnny’s house with an extra piggy bank that you’re going to keep in his room. You write your name on it and put it in his closet. Johnny’s mom is always very busy, so she never has time to check on his piggy bank. So you can keep yours there and it will stay a secret.

Now all the kids in the neighborhood think this is a good idea, and everyone goes to Johnny’s house with extra piggy banks. Now Johnny’s closet is full of piggy banks from everyone in the neighborhood.

One day, Johnny’s mom comes home and sees all the piggy banks. She gets very mad and calls everyone’s parents to let them know.

Now not everyone did this for a bad reason. Eric’s older brother always steals from his piggy bank, so he just wanted a better hiding spot. Timmy wanted to save up to buy his mom a birthday present without her knowing. Sammy just did it because he thought it was fun. But many kids did do it for a bad reason. Jacob was stealing people’s lunch money and didn’t want his parents to figure it out. Michael was stealing money from his mom’s purse. Fat Bobby’s parents put him on a diet, and didn’t want them to figure out when he was buying candy.

Now in real life, many very important people were just caught hiding their piggy banks at Johnny’s house in Panama. Today their moms all found out. Pretty soon, we’ll know more about which of these important people were doing it for bad reasons and which were doing it for good reasons. But almost everyone is in trouble regardless, because it’s against the rules to keep secrets no matter what.

The leaked documents provide details on some of these piggy banks — uh, shell companies. They reveal shocking acts of corruption in Russia, hint at scandalous goings-on in a range of developing nations, and may prompt a political crisis in Iceland.

Here are a few of the highlights, with links to the full stories where you can read the details:


In a way, the fact that people use shell companies is not new, and it’s always been somewhat understood that there’s some underlying shenanigans behind these accounts.  Some of the shenanigans revealed by the Panama Papers involves nothing more than legal avarice.The name of Ian Cameron, the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, shows up in the Panama Papers, for example. Mossack Fonseca helped him set up his investment company Blairmore Holdings (named after his family’s ancestral country estate) in the British Virgin Islands, where, marketing material assured investors, the company “will not be subject to United Kingdom corporation tax or income tax on its profits.”

This particular kind of move is perfectly legal and doesn’t even involve any secrecy. It is entirely typical for investment companies whose employees all work or reside in New York, London, or Connecticut to be domiciled for tax purposes in someplace like the Cayman Islands.  Although when Bernie Sanders talks about this stuff, this is what he means.

On the other hand, there is shadier stuff.  One wealthy client, US millionaire and life coach Marianna Olszewski, was offered fake ownership records to hide money from the authorities. This is in direct breach of international regulations designed to stop money-laundering and tax evasion.

An email from a Mossack executive to Ms Olszewski in January 2009 explains how she could deceive the bank: “We may use a natural person who will act as the beneficial owner… and therefore his name will be disclosed to the bank. Since this is a very sensitive matter, fees are quite high.”  (It’s not clear with Ms. Olszewski has broken the law).

Meanwhile, as I write this, Iceland is going ballistic.  Protests throughout (below is a live YouTube stream) as the Prime Minister there refuses to resign:

Anyway, to be continued.

FBI Quietly Drops Lawsuit Against Apple

Remember that thing last month that I wrote about where the FBI wanted to force Apple’s help to break into an iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorist?

It was controversial in part because many thought that the FBI didn’t really need Apple’s help. Those people include Richard Clark. The former U.S. counterterrorism official and security adviser to the White House told NPR he believed the NSA could do it, no problem, but that the FBI was “not as interested in solving the problem as they are in getting a legal precedent.” Edward Snowden said the same via Twitter.

The FBI just proved them right (the Guardian):

The US government dropped its court fight against Apple after the FBI successfully pulled data from the iPhone of San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook, according to court records.

The development effectively ended a six-week legal battle poised to shape digital privacy for years to come. Instead, Silicon Valley and Washington are poised to return to a simmering cold war over the balance between privacy and law enforcement in the age of apps.

Justice Department lawyers wrote in a court filing Monday evening that they no longer needed Apple’s help in getting around the security countermeasures on Farook’s device.

No work on the third party that helped the FBI find the security breach.

Apple And The FBI Order

Interesting little development going on in the tech/privacy world and, depending on who you believe, a possible turning point for the better/worse.

After the San Bernardino shootings, the FBI seized the iPhone used by shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI has a warrant to search the phone’s contents, and because it was Farook’s work phone, the FBI also has permission from the shooter’s employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, to search the device. Legally, the FBI can and should search this phone. That’s not up for debate. If the FBI gets a warrant to search a house and the people who own it say okay, there’s no ambiguity about whether it can search the house.

But if the FBI comes across a safe in that house, the warrant and permission do not mean it can force the company that manufactures the safe to create a special tool for opening its safes, especially a tool that would make other safes completely useless as secure storage. That’s the situation that Apple’s dealing with here.

The FBI obtained an order from a California district court on Tuesday ordering Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” in cracking Farook’s passcode. The court order doesn’t flat-out demand that Apple unlock the phone, which is an iPhone 5C running iOS 9. Instead, the judge is asking Apple to create a new, custom, terrorist-phone-specific version of its iOS software to help the FBI unlock the phone. Security researcher Dan Guido has a great analysis of why it is technically possible for Apple to comply and create this software. (It would not be if Farook had used an iPhone 6, because Apple created a special security protection called the Secure Enclave for its newer phones that cannot be manipulated by customizing iOS.)

Apple quickly said it would fight the judge’s order. Chief executive Tim Cook called it “an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” and said the order “has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” He published a message emphasizing that the company can’t build a backdoor for one iPhone without screwing over security for the rest:

In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

Apple, Google and other technology firms in recent years have stepped up encryption — allowing only the customers to have “keys” to unlock their devices — claiming improved security and privacy is needed to maintain confidence in the digital world.

This has sparked a national discussion on weighing security against privacy.  Not a new debate — we’ve had that since 9/11.  But this relates to our smartphones, and so everyone has a strong opinion, it seems.  Republican candidates are coming down on the side of national security in a few that is somewhat contradictory of the anti-big-government stance they often take.  Again, nothing new there.

Let’s see if we can’t shake out this tree a little.

First off, here is the actual order.  Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, a former federal prosecutor, relied on the All Writs Act, passed in 1789 (one of the first federal laws ever).  It has been used many times in the past by the government to require a third party to aid law enforcement in its investigation.

The order would require Apple (US) to create firmware to be loaded onto a specific phone to make it possible to do brute force password guessing. (Among a couple of other things, it would take away the maximum number of guesses to unlock the device.)

The significant thing about this case is that the FBI, minus any enforcing legislation, has gone and found itself a judge to order a company to do something.

Think about that — ‘ordering a company to do something’.  That is something arguably new in the current FBI approach.

The Apple case is remarkable in that it couches what the court views as “reasonable assistance” as basically breaking your own products.  Apple has quite rightly made the point that not only does this break company security and therefore customer privacy, but that if they create an exploit for the FBI, the vulnerability will be used by the likes of Putin and various repressive regimes.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have all voiced support for Apple‘s fight against a court order that Apple says would make iPhones less secure a,d it is not hard to understand why — they simply cannot run a global business if they are seen to do too many special favors for one government, the United States.

But is this really about privacy?  Do we as individuals really care about these things?  Let’s face it — we are now just little motors chuntering around creating metadata exhaust trails. The current conflict is not an argument about our privacy rights, since we seem to be content to leave ourselves all over the place (Facebook,. Twitter, etc.).  Rather, this might be a fight between governments and firms on how better to pin us down and hoover up the effluent we leave behind. You can see why they might all be getting testy about who gets what.

So I tend to think this is less about Apple preserving privacy for its owners, and more about it being seen in international quarters as subservient to the American government.  What will happen to the foreign markets of Google and Facebook and Apple and Android if it widely believe that one American judge can order these giant companies to invade one person’s privacy?

This is about the Benjamins just as much as about the privacy rights of people.

Hillary Clinton Apologizes For…. Something

ABC News:

Hillary Clinton on Tuesday told ABC News’ David Muir that using a personal email account while Secretary of State was a “mistake” and that she is “sorry” for it.

“I do think I could have and should have done a better job answering questions earlier. I really didn’t perhaps appreciate the need to do that,” the democratic presidential candidate told Muir in an exclusive interview in New York City. “What I had done was allowed, it was above board. But in retrospect, as I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts. One for personal, one for work-related emails. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.”

This is the farthest Clinton has gone yet in offering an apology for her use of a private email server while Secretary of State.

For reasons surpassing my understanding, the email “scandal” has been around for a couple of months, supplanting the Benghazi scandal for Hillary Clinton which turned out to be nothing.

Every time I read about it, I feel like I should blog in depth about it, because it really seems to be a BIG DEAL.  But I haven’t figured out what the BIG DEAL is.

I go over to Fox News, who reports on this endlessly.  And while the chattering heads on, say, Fox’s “The Five” keep insisting that Hillary “broke the law”, I have yet to hear what that law is.  I’ll tell you what it LOOKS like.  It LOOKS like they are trying to catch Hillary in some kind of “You said that, NOW you say this” perjury trap.  It is investigating for the sake of investigating, because at SOME point, they will find SOMETHING that doesn’t jibe with what she has said.  It almost doesn’t matter what.  If she said it was rainy on January 5, 2011, and they find an email from that day saying it was sunny… well, then I guess we have “Rainy-gate”.  Anything to knock her down in the polls.

But seriously, Hillary Clinton broke no law.  She simply didn’t.  Yes, emails to and from her were on her own personal private server.  But that was not illegal.  The National Archives established protocols for preserving emails, but that’s THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES.  Their job is history, not security.  And obviously, there are security concerns, as well as investigative concerns (emails need to be preserved if there is a a Freedom of Information Act request, to give one example).

At first blush, it might LOOK like Hillary was trying to hide something, by keeping her emails off the government computers.  Except that… they WEREN’T kept off the government computers.  If she sent an email to a government email address, it was saved on that government server.  If she received an email from a government email address, it was saved on that government server as well.  And if she sent or received a person email, then it wouldn’t be subject to FOIA requests or pose a national security risk.

So it doesn’t really look that bad when you actually think about.

The second concern is security.  Clinton’s personal server (it is assumed) is not as secure as the State Department’s server (although the federal government has been hacked, and to our knowledge, the Clinton home server has never been hacked).  Did Clinton receive or transmit classified information?  Her foes say yes, completely overlooking the fact that at the time the information was sent or received, it WASN’T classified.  It is illegal for someone to “knowingly” receive a classified document or briefing and then turn around and send along that info in an unclassified email.  This, Clinton insists, did not happen, and there has been no evidence that this did happen.  (When you hear Clinton foes try to compare her to General Patraeus, this is the salient difference.  Patraeus KNEW the information he passed on to his paramour-writer friend was classified).

Some argue that some of the information received by Clinton, while not marked as “CLASSIFIED”, were of such sensitive nature that they were – I love this phrase — “born classified”.  Maybe.  Maybe to some.  But did Hillary know it at the time?  Did she even read all her email?  Who knows?

You see, part of the problem is there is no consensus in the government as to what is “classified” and what isn’t.  As Jeffrey Toobin explains in the New Yorker, while classified information is generally defined as anything with the potential to damage national security, in reality, “government bureaucracies use classification rules to protect turf, to avoid embarrassment, to embarrass rivals—in short, for a variety of motives that have little to do with national security.”  Since the process by which the government classifies information is a complicated and subjective one, it is impossible for someone to know today what will be classified tomorrow, and even whether it should be classified at all.

“Ah-HA,” say the Hillary foes.  If that is the case, then, as the nation’s top diplomat, Clinton should still have been well aware that some of the information she was hosting on her server was POTENTIALLY sensitive and would POTENTIALLY end up classified even before it was officially ruled as such. Put another way, Hillary might not have known which information would become classified but she SHOULD HAVE KNOWN some of it eventually would be.


That’s where they got her.

And presumably, that’s what she has apologized for.

But once you digest all that, what did Hillary Clinton DO?  She committed an error.  That’s it.

This isn’t the crime of the century, like when she and her husband killed Vincent Foster and made it look like a suicide (joke).  This isn’t even a crime.  At worst, it was an error.

Unfortunately, it is an error which is being played out in drips.  That’s because the FBI is reviewing her email and releasing whatever is unclassified in small batches to the public.  Why?  I’m not sure.  There was no security breach of Hillary’s email account.  She was admittedly stupid for making that a (remote) possibility, but she didn’t hide the fact that she was using her own non-dot-gov email system.  Republicans and Democrats alike all knew her email address.  She wasn’t hiding the fact of her private server because there was nothing to hide.  It’s only NOW that people care, because it allows them to look inside.  She was stupid for having the private server if only because it gave her foes this opportunity.  But she can’t apologize for THAT.  So she apologizes for making an error.

Big whoop.

Ashley Madison Claims Its First “Celebrity” Victim

I’m not going to say who it was, although it is someone already “disgraced”.  And I put “celebrity” in quotes, because this guy is more of a reality show star, than an actual celebrity.

There is a certain schadenfreude at this “family values” guy being revealed as someone who cheats on his wife through Ashley Madison, but I think the bigger story is that his name was leaked at all.  The lesson to be learned from the Ashley Madison leak is NOT “don’t cheat on your spouse” (although you shouldn’t) — the lesson to be learned is be very careful what you put online.  No more secrets.

UPDATE:  Okay, since he has fessed up, I’m talking about this guy, who, in a statement today, calls himself the “biggest hypocrite ever”.

Ashley Madison Hackers Release Names

The Impact Team, the name of the group that hacked the Ashley Madison website (a site owned by Avid Life Media), has released the names, addresses and phone numbers — as well as a four-digit code that could be either partial credit card numbers or just user numbers — of the 37 million users of the cheat-on-your-spouse website.

But don’t rush to a website and start looking for cheaters in your social circles.  The data is available on the Dark Web, which is part of the Internet not readily available to just anybody. Basically, it requires software and technical knowledge that I don’t have, but the information is available, and some genius tech nerdos are probably poring through the leaked names at this very moment.

Who knows?  Maybe sometime soon you’ll be able to download all 9.7 gigs of information.  But before you get giddy — yeah, it does have the makings of some sort of modern fable in which wannabe cheaters get their comeuppance — just a standard reminder that if you download it and look through it for people you might know, there’s no turning back from that. And somewhere out there, there’s a database of stuff you do that you would prefer not get out there.

Here’s the announcement of the leak, which sets forth the particular objections of the hackers:


This sounds like someone who was caught using Ashley Madison, and was pissed that they did not do enough to keep his account secret.

I don’t know the site, although when I read that it has 37 million users, I was astounded.  Then again, if the hackers are correct, that 37 million may be “fake”.  Who knows?

But it makes little difference what the site is for.  Revealing names and phone numbers and private information is a pretty serious felony.  And it should be.  This would be true whether the hacked site is or Ashley Madison.

I wonder how many marriages are going to be damaged as a result of this.  Probably not very many, as long as it stays on the Dark Web.  I wonder if that will happen.

It seems there is some truth to the assertion that Avid Life Media was lax about cyber security:

Senior staff at Ashley Madison, the hacked extramarital dating site, were raising concerns over its security procedures as recently as June, just a month before the site was attacked.

Internal documents leaked as part of the attack show concerns over “a lack of security awareness across the organisation” being raised by one vice president.

This news story is messed up in about ten different ways.

On The Ashley Madison Hack

So, a few days ago, the website Ashley Madison was hacked and its 37 million customers could soon have their data leaked online by a crew calling themselves The Impact Team.  Ashley Madison, for the uninitiated, is a site that lets spouses cheat on their partners — kind of like a for adulterers. The Impact Team has threatened to release a huge trove of data beyond the snippets of information they already leaked from Avid Life Media, the owner of Ashley Madison and related properties Established Men and Cougar Life, if the cheating site was not shut down.

Why is Impact Team doing this?  Well, it seems they were particularly aggrieved at a service launched by Ashley Madison last year, promising it could delete users’ information so it was irrecoverable for $19. The hackers claimed that service didn’t do as advertised, and customers’ names and addresses were still stored on ALM’s servers.

“Full Delete netted ALM $1.7mm in revenue in 2014. It’s also a complete lie,” The Impact Team said in a notice alongside the leak, in which they also claimed to have taken complete control of ALM’s “office and production domains”, as well as “all customer information databases”.

If that is true, I think they have a point.

Now, I suppose the news of the leak is ho-hum news to a lot of people, but to 37 million — wait…. let’s just contemplate that number.


Ok.  Well to them this is potentially… bad.  REAL bad.

What disgusts me are people like Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, who posted a message on his Facebook page about the matter Wednesday afternoon, stating:

The Bible says, “be sure your sin will find you out.” Ashley Madison, the website for people who want to cheat on their spouses was hacked this weekend. Their slogan is: “Life is short. Have an affair.” Hackers threatened to reveal personal data related to 37 million users. I have news for all those worried cheaters out there wringing their hands—God already knew! His holy Word says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Times may have changed, but God’s laws and standards never change—all sin has a price. The New York Daily News calls this an “‪#‎adultery‬ website.” Isn’t it a shame that immorality is such big business?

You know what?  F you, Franklin Graham.

Not being married nor inclined to cheat, I’m not personally affected by this hack, but it does establish a terrible precedent.  We don’t want to snicker at the cheaters who got caught because you never know what could be out in the dark hidden recesses of the web that reflects badly on you or. . .  and this is important . . . someone with the same name as you.  So I think we need to pay attention to this type of thing a little more closely.

Are We Under Cyberattack?

Imma just tell this story in Tweets

So United went down (It went up after 2 hours), and NYSE went down (it went up after 3 hours).  Also down (and now back up) today, the Wall Street Journal computers.


Many think this is a Chinese government hacking attack.  First of all, China is in some serious shit:

While most recent financial news has focused on the crisis currently facing Greece, another disaster is stirring further east that makes Alexis Tsipras’s problems look like chicken feed.

Since the middle of June, the prices of Chinese company shares have fallen by 30 per cent. That amounts to around $3.2 trillion dollars that has been wiped off the stock market in only a few weeks.

It’s hard to make sense of such a huge number, but this figure is higher than the UK’s GDP in 2013, a comparatively modest $2.7 trillion.

The sudden drop in prices came after months of solid growth. Since November last year, Chinese stocks had more than doubled, largely due to small retail investors – ‘mum and dad’ investors playing the stock market – using borrowed money.

There are concerns that the Chinese government’s response could be partially responsible for the sell-off.

Which is why the Asian markets did so bad yesterday.  Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index plunged as much as 8% before closing down 5.8% and China’s Shanghai Composite sank 5.9%. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index lost 3.1% to close at 19,737.64.  That’s what was facing Wall Street as it opened today.  (As I write this, the now-reopened Dow is down 238 points today).

But the theory that China might be behind these computer outages today could be supported by data from the Norse Intelligence Network,  a California-based online security company. The company offers up a real-time cyber attack map, which seemed to show at midday on Wednesday that China was the number-one attacker and the US was the number-one target:


I don’t know if this is usual or not.  But it looks like St. Louis is getting bombarded.

To be continued…..?