Off the Wires

Biden expects Guantanamo prison to close before Obama leaves office

August 25th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Thursday he expected the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would close before President Barack Obama leaves office in January.

"That is my hope and expectation," he told a news conference in Sweden.

The White House has been trying to close the facility since Obama took office but has been stymied by opposition in Congress.

'Three quarters of the town is not there anymore'

August 24th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

·     Death toll in Italian earthquake rises to 73

At least 73 people have died in an earthquake which devastated a string of small towns in central Italy in the early hours of Wednesday, the civil protection department said.

The quake struck when most residents were asleep, razing homes and buckling roads in a cluster of communities some 140 km (85 miles) east of Rome.

Zika in Miami

August 23rd, 2016  |  Source:

Debbie Wasserman Schultz drinks coffee next to cans of Cutter mosquito repellent that is being distributed to combat possible infection from the Zika virus in Miami Beach, Florida, 

Evidence points to another Snowden at the NSA

August 22nd, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

In the summer of 1972, state-of-the-art campaign spying consisted of amateur burglars, armed with duct tape and microphones, penetrating the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Today, amateur burglars have been replaced by cyberspies, who penetrated the DNC armed with computers and sophisticated hacking tools. 

Where the Watergate burglars came away empty-handed and in handcuffs, the modern- day cyber thieves walked away with tens of thousands of sensitive political documents and are still unidentified.

Now, in the latest twist, hacking tools themselves, likely stolen from the National Security Agency, are on the digital auction block. Once again, the usual suspects start with Russia – though there seems little evidence backing up the accusation. 


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In addition, if Russia had stolen the hacking tools, it would be senseless to publicize the theft, let alone put them up for sale. It would be like a safecracker stealing the combination to a bank vault and putting it on Facebook. Once revealed, companies and governments would patch their firewalls, just as the bank would change its combination. 

A more logical explanation could also be insider theft. If that’s the case, it’s one more reason to question the usefulness of an agency that secretly collects private information on millions of Americans but can’t keep its most valuable data from being stolen, or as it appears in this case, being used against us.

In what appeared more like a Saturday Night Live skit than an act of cybercrime, a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers put up for bid on the Internet what it called a “full state-sponsored toolset” of “cyberweapons.” “!!! Attention government sponsors of cyberwarfare and those who profit from it !!!! How much would you pay for enemies cyberweapons?” said the announcement. 

The group said it was releasing some NSA files for “free” and promised “better” ones to the highest bidder. However, those with loosing bids “Lose Lose,” it said, because they would not receive their money back. And should the total sum of the bids, in bitcoins, reach the equivalent of half a billion dollars, the group would make the whole lot public. 

While the “auction” seemed tongue in cheek, more like hacktivists than Russian high command, the sample documents were almost certainly real. The draft of a top-secret NSA manual for implanting offensive malware, released by Edward Snowden, contains code for a program codenamed SECONDDATE. That same 16-character string of numbers and characters is in the code released by the Shadow Brokers. The details from the manual were first released by The Intercept last Friday.

The authenticity of the NSA hacking tools were also confirmed by several ex-NSA officials who spoke to the media, including former members of the agency’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) unit, the home of hacking specialists.  

“Without a doubt, they’re the keys to the kingdom,” one former TAO employee told theWashington Post. “The stuff you’re talking about would undermine the security of a lot of major government and corporate networks both here and abroad.” Another added, “From what I saw, there was no doubt in my mind that it was legitimate.”

Like a bank robber’s tool kit for breaking into a vault, cyber exploitation tools, with codenames like EPICBANANA and BUZZDIRECTION, are designed to break into computer systems and networks. Just as the bank robber hopes to find a crack in the vault that has never been discovered, hackers search for digital cracks, or “exploits,” in computer programs like Windows. 

The most valuable are “zero day” exploits, meaning there have been zero days since Windows has discovered the “crack” in their programs. Through this crack, the hacker would be able to get into a system and exploit it, by stealing information, until the breach is eventually discovered and patched. According to the former NSA officials who viewed the Shadow Broker files, they contained a number of exploits, including zero-day exploits that the NSA often pays thousands of dollars for to private hacking groups.

The reasons given for laying the blame on Russia appear less convincing, however. “This is probably some Russian mind game, down to the bogus accent,” James A. Lewis, a computer expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told the New York Times. Why the Russians would engage in such a mind game, he never explained.

Rather than the NSA hacking tools being snatched as a result of a sophisticated cyber operation by Russia or some other nation, it seems more likely that an employee stole them. Experts who have analyzed the files suspect that they date to October 2013, five months after Edward Snowden left his contractor position with the NSA and fled to Hong Kong carrying flash drives containing hundreds of thousands of pages of NSA documents. 

So, if Snowden could not have stolen the hacking tools, there are indications that after he departed in May 2013, someone else did, possibly someone assigned to the agency’s highly sensitive Tailored Access Operations.

In December 2013, another highly secret NSA document quietly became public. It was a top secret TAO catalog of NSA hacking tools. Known as the Advanced Network Technology (ANT) catalog, it consisted of 50 pages of extensive pictures, diagrams and descriptions of tools for every kind of hack, mostly targeted at devices manufactured by U.S. companies, including Apple, Cisco, Dell and many others. 

Like the hacking tools, the catalog used similar codenames. Among the tools targeting Apple was one codenamed DROPOUTJEEP, which gives NSA total control of iPhones. "A software implant for the Apple iPhone,” says the ANT catalog, “includes the ability to remotely push/pull files from the device. SMS retrieval, contact-list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell-tower location, etc.” 

Another, codenamed IRATEMONK, is, “Technology that can infiltrate the firmware of hard drives manufactured by Maxtor, Samsung, Seagate and Western Digital.” 

In 2014, I spent three days in Moscow with Snowden for a magazine assignment and a PBS documentary. During our on-the-record conversations, he would not talk about the ANT catalog, perhaps not wanting to bring attention to another possible NSA whistleblower.

I was, however, given unrestricted access to his cache of documents. These included both the entire British, or GCHQ, files and the entire NSA files.

But going through this archive using a sophisticated digital search tool, I could not find a single reference to the ANT catalog. This confirmed for me that it had likely been released by a second leaker. And if that person could have downloaded and removed the catalog of hacking tools, it’s also likely he or she could have also downloaded and removed the digital tools now being leaked.

In fact, a number of the same hacking implants and tools released by the Shadow Brokers are also in the ANT catalog, including those with codenames BANANAGLEE and JETPLOW. These can be used to create “a persistent back-door capability” into widely used Cisco firewalls, says the catalog. 

Consisting of about 300 megabytes of code, the tools could easily and quickly be transferred to a flash drive. But unlike the catalog, the tools themselves – thousands of ones and zeros – would have been useless if leaked to a publication. This could be one reason why they have not emerged until now.

Enter WikiLeaks. Just two days after the first Shadow Brokers message, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, sent out a Twitter message. “We had already obtained the archive of NSA cyberweapons released earlier today,” Assange wrote, “and will release our own pristine copy in due course.” 

Kalashnikov gunmaker opens store at Moscow's largest airport

August 19th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Gunmaker Kalashnikov, whose AK-47 assault rifle has armed Russian forces for 70 years and been the preferred weapon of insurgents across continents, has opened a store at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport selling souvenirs including plastic model guns, the company said.

An airport official said the shop, offering novelties including pens, umbrellas, bags, hats, camouflage gear and "I love AK" T-shirts, would be situated in the rail-link section of the airport complex. The model guns - automatic pistols and rifles - would very clearly be imitations and would pose no security problems, he added.

"Kalashnikov is one of the most popular brands that come to mind for most people in the world when they hear about Russia," Kalashnikov's head of marketing, Vladimir Dmitriev, said in a press release.

"So, we are pleased to provide the opportunity for everyone to take away from Russia a souvenir with our company brand."

The AK-47, the first rifle the firm produced, has acquired an iconic status due to its low production costs and reliability in extreme conditions. It was introduced in 1948, armed the whole of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in communist times and served largely pro-Soviet rebel forces across Africa and Asia.

Produced also under license beyond Russian frontiers, it remains one of the most popular assault rifles in the world.

Sheremetyevo International Airport is Moscow's and Russia's largest airport by passenger traffic. In 2015, it handled more than 31 million passengers.

China launches 'hack-proof' communications satellite

August 16th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

China on Tuesday launched the world's first quantum satellite, which will help it establish "hack-proof" communications between space and the ground, state media said, the latest advance in an ambitious space program.

The program is a priority as President Xi Jinping has urged China to establish itself as a space power, and apart from its civilian ambitions, it has tested anti-satellite missiles.

The Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, or QUESS, satellite, was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the remote northwestern province of Gansu in the early hours of Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said.

"In its two-year mission, QUESS is designed to establish 'hack-proof' quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground," it said.

"Quantum communication boasts ultra-high security as a quantum photon can neither be separated nor duplicated," it added. "It is hence impossible to wiretap, intercept or crack the information transmitted through it."

The satellite will enable secure communications between Beijing and Urumqi, Xinhua said, referring to the capital of China's violence-prone far western region of Xinjiang, where the government says it is battling an Islamist insurgency.

"The newly-launched satellite marks a transition in China's role - from a follower in classic information technology development to one of the leaders guiding future achievements," Pan Jianwei, the project's chief scientist, told the agency.

Quantum communications holds "enormous prospects" in the field of defense, it added.

China insists its space program is for peaceful purposes, but the U.S. Defense Department has highlighted its increasing space capabilities, saying it was pursuing activities aimed to prevent adversaries from using space-based assets in a crisis.

Secret Ledger in Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief

August 15th, 2016  |  Source:

KIEV, Ukraine — On a leafy side street off Independence Square in Kiev is an office used for years by Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, when he consulted for Ukraine’s ruling political party. His furniture and personal items were still there as recently as May.

And Mr. Manafort’s presence remains elsewhere here in the capital, where government investigators examining secret records have found his name, as well as companies he sought business with, as they try to untangle a corrupt network they say was used to loot Ukrainian assets and influence elections during the administration of Mr. Manafort’s main client, former PresidentViktor F. Yanukovych.

Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.

In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of PresidentVladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Manafort’s involvement with moneyed interests in Russia and Ukraine had previously come to light. But as American relationships there become a rising issue in the presidential campaign — from Mr. Trump’s favorable statements about Mr. Putin and his annexation of Crimea to the suspected Russian hacking of Democrats’ emails — an examination of Mr. Manafort’s activities offers new details of how he mixed politics and business out of public view and benefited from powerful interests now under scrutiny by the new government in Kiev.

Anti-corruption officials there say the payments earmarked for Mr. Manafort, previously unreported, are a focus of their investigation, though they have yet to determine if he actually received the cash. While Mr. Manafort is not a target in the separate inquiry of offshore activities, prosecutors say he must have realized the implications of his financial dealings.

“He understood what was happening in Ukraine,” said Vitaliy Kasko, a former senior official with the general prosecutor’s office in Kiev. “It would have to be clear to any reasonable person that the Yanukovych clan, when it came to power, was engaged in corruption.”

Mr. Kasko added, “It’s impossible to imagine a person would look at this and think, ‘Everything is all right.’”

Mr. Manafort did not respond to interview requests or written questions from The New York Times. But his lawyer, Richard A. Hibey, said Mr. Manafort had not received “any such cash payments” described by the anti-corruption officials.

Mr. Hibey also disputed Mr. Kasko’s suggestion that Mr. Manafort might have countenanced corruption or been involved with people who took part in illegal activities.

“These are suspicions, and probably heavily politically tinged ones,” said Mr. Hibey, a member of the Washington law firm Miller & Chevalier. “It is difficult to respect any kind of allegation of the sort being made here to smear someone when there is no proof and we deny there ever could be such proof.”

Mysterious Payments

The developments in Ukraine underscore the risky nature of the international consulting that has been a staple of Mr. Manafort’s business since the 1980s, when he went to work for the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Before joining Mr. Trump’s campaign this spring, Mr. Manafort’s most prominent recent client was Mr. Yanukovych, who — like Mr. Marcos — was deposed in a popular uprising.

Before he fled to Russia two years ago, Mr. Yanukovych and his Party of Regions relied heavily on the advice of Mr. Manafort and his firm, who helped them win several elections. During that period, Mr. Manafort never registered as a foreign agent with the United States Justice Department — as required of those seeking to influence American policy on behalf of foreign clients — although one of his subcontractors did.

It is unclear if Mr. Manafort’s activities necessitated registering. If they were limited to advising the Party of Regions in Ukraine, he probably would not have had to. But he also worked to burnish his client’s image in the West and helped Mr. Yanukovych’s administration draft a report defending its prosecution of his chief rival, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, in 2012.

U.S. aims to restore water, return fish to diverted California river

August 12th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

California's San Joaquin River flows out of the mountains above Yosemite, clear and bubbling until it abruptly stops just north of Fresno, its water diverted to irrigate farms.

Environmentalists have cheered a plan to reconnect the river this fall. But it is over budget, overdue and vehemently opposed by local farmers and some Republican lawmakers. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful, once joked about eating its protected fish with crackers.

"For somebody who doesn't really understand about the issue it seems very simple - just reconnect the river and water will flow," said Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation farmer whose family settled in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1800s. "But the river was disconnected for a reason."

Initially diverted to provide water for agriculture and encourage family farms, the San Joaquin River has become the latest battleground of California's century-old water wars. Its dams, hydro-electric plants and diverted flow illustrate the benefits as well as the costs of 20th century efforts to tame the state's natural resources.

Damming the river in 1942 was an engineering feat that made the San Joaquin a keystone of a complex water system that ultimately allowed a semi-arid state to provide water for 40 million residents and grow more fruits and vegetables than any other U.S. state, on land watered almost entirely by irrigation.

But construction of Friant Dam near Fresno also eliminated the Pacific Coast's southernmost runs of Chinook salmon. The river is dry most years along two stretches for a total of 60 miles. It was recently named the second-most endangered U.S. river by the group American Rivers.

"Old-timers tell stories of the water being so thick with salmon that you could practically walk across it," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In 1988, that environmental group sued the federal government, saying diverting the river broke state law protecting fish. After 18 years of court battles, environmentalists, the federal government and water users finally agreed to restore the river to again support salmon.

Since that 2006 settlement, efforts to restore the river have been slowed by engineering challenges, tense negotiations with farmers and other delays. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Friant Dam, is now set to release enough water to reconnect the river this fall, said program manager Alicia Forsythe.

But improvements targeted for completion by 2013, including levees to prevent flooding and screens to keep threatened fish out of irrigation canals, have yet to start.

Environmentalists, government officials and farmers are still arguing over the path the river should take because agricultural land has encroached on its traditional route.

And farmers who rely on water diverted at Friant Dam will get less under the plan. Their allocations will drop by about 18 percent as more water is allowed to flow downstream.

Near Mendota, where levee construction is planned to begin next year, a road runs across the dry riverbed. Abandoned furniture sits in the dirt, and a target with bullet holes hangs from a tree.

Costs have ballooned, rising from an estimated $250 million to $800 million in 2006 to $1.5 billion today, said Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Shane Hunt.

The latest projected completion date is 2029.

"It's a giant waste of time and money," said Greg Pearl, who farms 800 acres near the river.

In Brazil, high security Uber for the safest trips

August 10th, 2016  |  Source:

Bluclub is a new car service featuring armored vehicles and drivers trained in defensive driving.

Though on-demand rideshare services are undoubtedly convenient, the peer-to-peer model of businesses like Uber can be prone to crime. Last year, according to the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles, the company had failed to notice the criminal record of 25 drivers it background-checked and hired in the two cities. We have seen the car service that only employs female drivers and will serve only women (including trans women) and children under 13. Now, from Brazil,Bluclub is an on-demand car service that puts the safety of its passengers first.

Recently launched in Beta, all of the vehicles used by Bluclub are armored for utmost security. All drivers employed by the startup have also taken defensive driving courses, ensuring that passengers are protected. Users pay for ride packages in advance, and the rate starts at around 11 miles for BRL 90 (USD 27), or USD 2.45 per mile. This puts the service a little above Uber rates in NYC (USD 1.75 per mile).

Intersted riders in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo can now apply for access via Bluclub’s site. We have already seen a community-funded rideshare nonprofit in Austin, what other niche rideshare services could offer functions neglected by the giants?


Climate warming blamed for vanishing fish in African lake

August 9th, 2016  |  Source: AFP

Fish are becoming more scarce in Africa's oldest and deepest lake, Lake Tanganyika, because of climate warming, not just overfishing, US researchers said this week.

The study on Lake Tanganyika, which covers parts of Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, relied on sediment samples drilled from the lake bed and going back 1,500 years to analyze the changing biodiversity.

Researchers found that the lake has been warming since the 1800s, leading to a decline in lake algae which fish feed on, and decreasing numbers of fish.

Large-scale commercial fishing began on Lake Tanganyika in the 1950s, and some have raised concern that overfishing may be threatening the lake's fish.

The lake provides 60 percent of the animal protein to feed people in the region, and yields some 200,000 tons of fish annually.

"Some people say the problem for the Lake Tanganyika fishery is 'too many fishing boats,' but our work shows the decline in fish has been going on since the 19th century," said lead author Andrew Cohen, a professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona.

"We can see this decline in the numbers of fossil fish going down in parallel with the rise in water temperature."

Overfishing is still partly to blame for the reduction in catch, Cohen acknowledged.

But the warming of the lake predates that, and has reduced the suitable habitat for fish and molluscs by 38 percent since 1946, said the study in the August 8 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lake Tanganyika is known for diverse species, many of which are unique to the lake, with hundreds of species found nowhere else, Cohen said.

As it warms, large parts of the freshwater lake's floor are losing oxygen and killing off bottom-dwellers such as snails.

"We know this warming is going on in other lakes," Cohen said.

"It has important implications for food and for ecosystems changing rapidly."

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