Posts Tagged World issues

Web attack ‘aimed at one blogger’ (BBC)

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Facebook was not taken completely offline by the attack

A “massively co-ordinated” attack on websites including Google, Facebook and Twitter was directed at one individual, it has been confirmed.

Facebook told BBC News that the strike was aimed at a pro-Georgian blogger known as Cyxymu.

The attack caused a blackout of Twitter for around two hours, while Facebook said its service had been “degraded”.

Google said it had defended its sites and was now working with the other companies to investigate the attack.

“[The] attack appears to be directed at an individual who has a presence on a number of sites, rather than the sites themselves,” a Facebook spokesman told BBC News.

“Specifically, the person is an activist blogger and a botnet was directed to request his pages at such a rate that it impacted service for other users.”

Botnets are networks of computers under the control of hackers.

The machines were used to mount a so-called denial-of-service (DOS) attack on Thursday.

‘Up is down, left is right and black is white,’ a chief security researcher told me. ‘These attacks do not make sense’

DOS attacks take various forms but often involve a company’s servers being flooded with data in an effort to disable them.

“Attacks such as this are malicious efforts orchestrated to disrupt and make unavailable services such as online banks, credit card payment gateways and, in this case, Twitter, for intended customers or users,” wrote Twitter co-founder Biz Stone on his blog.

Writing on his blog, Graham Cluley of security firm Sophos said: “This raises the astonishing thought that a vendetta against a single user caused Twitter to crumble, forcing us to ask serious questions about the site’s fragility.”

Silencing tactic

It is still not known who perpetrated the attack or why they may have targeted Cyxymu and his accounts.

However, in an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, the blogger blamed Russia.

Twitter status screenshot

Twitter updated users via a status page

“Maybe it was carried out by ordinary hackers but I’m certain the order came from the Russian government,” he said.

The blogger has previously criticised Russia over its conduct in the war over the disputed South Ossetia region, which began one year ago.

A previous statement by Facebook said that the attack on the websites where he held accounts was “to keep his voice from being heard”.

Other sites such as Live Journal, where Cyxymu has his blog, were also targeted in the attack on Thursday.

Only Google seems to have escaped unscathed from the attack.

“Google systems prevented substantive impact to our services,” the company said in a statement.

The company has not confirmed which services were targeted in the attack, but it is thought that its e-mail service Gmail and video site YouTube were under fire.

“We are aware that a handful of non-Google sites were impacted by [an]… attack this morning, and are in contact with some affected companies to help investigate this attack,” the company said.

Protest tool

All of the affected services were keen to stress that users’ data had not been put at risk in the attacks.

“Please note that no user data was compromised in this attack,” wrote Twitter’s Biz Stone.

Twitter CEO Evan Williams on BBC Two’s Newsnight

“This activity is about saturating a service with so many requests that it cannot respond to legitimate requests thereby denying service to intended customers or users.”

Twitter has had a meteoric rise since its launch in 2006.

A ComScore study suggests that Twitter had about 45 million users worldwide as of June 2009.

However, as many users interact with the service through mobile phones or third-party software, the actual number of users is likely to be higher.

However, that pales in comparison to Facebook, which claims to have 250m active users worldwide.

Both sites recently garnered worldwide attention when they were used by Iranians to co-ordinate demonstrations following the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

Many protesters believed there was electoral fraud and that opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi should have won.

Twitter chose to delay upgrade work during the protests to allow communication to continue.

In a BBC interview, co-founder Evan Williams denied the move had been a response to a US state department request.

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How vital were Cold War spies? (BBC)

By Gordon Corera
BBC Security Correspondent

Kim Philby

British spy Kim Philby handed over secrets to the Soviets

The world of espionage lies at the heart of the mythology of the Cold War.

Along with nuclear weapons, spies were the emblems of the conflict.

But while the tales of adventure, betrayal and mole hunts have proved a source of rich inspiration for thriller writers, did they actually make a difference to the outcome?

Did intelligence make the Cold War hotter or colder?

It is difficult to know the answer.

“There were secrets that were important to keep secret and there was intelligence which it would be very helpful to have known,” argues former British Foreign Secretary David Owen.

“But my own instinct is that we didn’t really – with a few exceptions and a few important exceptions – really know exactly what was going on.”

One reason it is hard to make a judgement is that much of the intelligence collected was military or tactical in nature, and would only have proven useful if the Cold War had gone hot.

Much effort was expended in stealing secrets like the Soviet order of battle or the design of new Soviet tanks which would have been invaluable in case of war.

Intelligence during the Cold War had a very big impact on the shape and size of the British defence programme
Sir David Omand
Former UK Intelligence and Security Coordinator

This type of intelligence was collected by electronic means and satellite reconnaissance, as well as by human spies. It was used to work out how to best equip and prepare the military.

Sir David Omand, the former UK Intelligence and Security Coordinator, says: “Intelligence during the Cold War had a very big impact on the shape and size of the British defence programme, on the kinds of equipment we bought and very specifically the actual capabilities that were built into that equipment to be able to encounter whatever intelligence showed was the capability of Warsaw Pact forces.”

During times of “hot war”, intelligence plays an important but ultimately secondary role in supporting military operations.

But, during periods of tension short of full-scale military action like the Cold War, intelligence takes on a more central position.

In the absence of traditional warfare, intelligence becomes itself the primary battleground as each side tries to understand the enemy’s capabilities and intentions, as it seeks to undermine their position using covert action, psychological operations and forms of subversion.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) had a troubled beginning to the Cold War, not least because it was penetrated by its Soviet counterpart, with men like Kim Philby and George Blake handing over secrets.

But slowly it became more professional, recruiting and running agents who could provide information on the activities of the Soviet bloc.

Intelligence sceptic

Some former diplomats query the record of intelligence in providing insight into political trends.

Rodric Braithwaite, a former ambassador to Russia at the end of the Cold War and later Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, is something of an intelligence sceptic.

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan in 1987

A Soviet spy’s insights changed Thatcher and Reagan’s approach

“I was always rather encouraged by the Joint Intelligence Committee, who used to send us drafts of their assessments on Soviet affairs with the secret bits cut out because they didn’t want to have them sloshing about in Moscow.

“With the secret bits out, the conclusions they were coming to were exactly the same ones that we were coming to in Moscow because the information that mattered was available at both ends and it was mostly either conversations with people, which were not particularly secret, or what was in the newspapers.”

But Sir Gerry Warner, a former deputy chief of MI6, believes intelligence helped ensure politicians had a realistic understanding of what the Soviet Union was up to.

“It is always a temptation if somebody is saying ‘I am a friend of yours and I don’t mean any harm’ to accept that.

“But if you are being told all the time by a microphone in your ear that it is totally untrue and that he’s holding a knife behind his back, he’s about to kick you where it hurts, the temptation is less to trust him.”

Running agents behind the Iron Curtain involved risk – risk to the life of an agent but also politically in terms of raising the temperature.

“The main concern was always balancing the value of possible intelligence against the risk,” explains Sir Gerry Warner.

“If an espionage operation was uncovered it was always an important public event – the media got into it, the other side would play it up – and therefore there was a political risk clearly.”

Understanding intentions

Spy rows flared periodically. In the early 1970s, the UK expelled more than 100 Soviet diplomats from its embassy in London.

So did these kind of operations and activities fuel distrust and paranoia?

The identity of most agents remains secret but a few have become public and one or two of those can be claimed to have made a real impact.

One was Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in Soviet military intelligence.

Knowing your enemy is very important indeed
Baroness Daphne Park
Former MI6 controller

His information – passed to MI6 and the CIA in the early 1960s – helped President Kennedy manage the Cuban missile crisis successfully by identifying the extent of Soviet missile capability and how far the Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev was likely to push events.

The most useful strategic intelligence comes from penetrating the leadership of your enemy so that you understand not just their military capability but their intentions.

That was something MI6 only managed late in the Cold War largely thanks to KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, who spent a decade towards the end of the Cold War supplying intelligence to MI6 which revealed how paranoid the Soviet leadership was of a first nuclear strike by Nato.

“The British service could not believe it but because I proved it very well they eventually believed it,” he said.

“Knowing your enemy is very important indeed,” argues Baroness Daphne Park, a former MI6 controller.

“It was very important that we should know that they were as paranoid as that. I don’t see how we would have known it any other way.”

Col Gordievsky’s insights had a profound effect on both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in rethinking how they approached the Soviet Union, which in turn helped them manage the end of the Cold War.

“What nobody wanted was to be surprised,” Sir John Scarlett, the chief of MI6, told me in his office.

“And that intelligence knowledge, intelligence base if you like, gave knowledge which greatly reduced that fear of a surprise attack.

“And, as the Cold War developed, more confidence developed that the other side was understood, and that helped manage the situation and was a key reason why we got to the end without a blowout.”

The one thing the spies failed to predict, along with everyone else, was of course the end of the Cold War itself.

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China’s computers at hacking risk (BBC)

By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Screen grab of blocked website
The system reportedly blocks legitimate as well as banned content

Every PC in China could be at risk of being taken over by malicious hackers because of flaws in compulsory government software.

The potential faults were brought to light by Chinese computer experts who said the flaw could lead to a “large-scale disaster”.

The Chinese government has mandated that all computers in the country must have the screening software installed.

It is intended to filter out offensive material from the net.

The Chinese government said that the Green Dam Youth Escort software, as it is known, was intended to push forward the “healthy development of the internet” and “effectively manage harmful material for the public and prevent it from being spread.”

“We found a series of software flaws,” explained Isaac Mao, a blogger and social entrepreneur in China, as well as a research fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

For example, he said, tests had shown that communications between the software and the servers at the company that developed the program were unencrypted.

Mr Mao told BBC News that this could allow hackers to “steal people’s private information” or “place malicious script” on computers in the network to “affect [a] large scale disaster.”

For example, a hacker could use malicious code to take control of PCs using the software.

“Then you have every computer in China potentially as part of a botnet,” Colin Maclay, also of Harvard, told BBC News.

A botnet is the name given to a network of hijacked computers that can then be used to pump out spam or launch concerted attacks on commercial or government websites.

No one from Jinhui Computer System Engineering, the company that developed Green Dam, was available for comment.

‘Naked pig’

The software has also caused a backlash amongst privacy experts, academics and some Chinese citizens. It has also raised the scorn of the blogosphere inside the country who feel the system is no match for tech-savvy teenagers.
internet bar in Beijing on June 3, 2009
Every new computer in China will have the software installed

One blogger posted a screenshot of the software purportedly blocking an attempt to visit a porn site using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

But, he said, there was no problem accessing the site using the Firefox web browser.

Others have reported that the system only runs on Microsoft Windows, allowing Mac and Linux users to bypass the software.

It is thought that at least 3m computer users have already downloaded the software, opening them up to potential security problems.

Another formal study by the Open Network Initiative into the risks posed by the software is expected soon. However, many people in China who have been forced to use the software are already reporting other problems.

For example, the system reportedly blocks legitimate as well as banned content. It is designed to identify the proportion of skin colour in a picture to determine whether it is pornography.

But comments on a bulletin board run by the software company that designed the system, suggest the system does not work perfectly.

Once you’ve got government-mandated software installed on each machine, the software has the keys to the kingdom
Professor Jonathan Zittrain

“I went on the internet to check out some animal photos. A lovely little naked pig was sent onto the black list. Pitiful little pig!,” read one comment.

“I was curious, so I looked up some photos of naked African women. Oh, they were not censored!”

Another message read: “We were ordered to install the software. So I have to come to this website and curse. After we installed the software, many normal websites are banned.”

The forum was taken down after it was seemingly flooded with complaints. A message on the site said says it is being “upgraded”.

Mr Mao told BBC News that they believed there was a new guideline from the country’s central propaganda department “to comb all media and online forums to block critics and discussion over the issue.”

Firewall flaw

The government may be keen to shut down discussion to quell rumours that the system could be used to monitor its citizens.

“Once you’ve got government-mandated software installed on each machine, the software has the keys to the kingdom – anything can be logged or affected,” said Professor Jonathan Zittrain, also of Harvard’s Berkman Center.

Virtual Police

Virtual police patrol China web

“While the justification may be pitched as protecting children and mostly concerning pornography, once the architecture is set up it can be used for broader purposes, such as the filtering of political ideas.”

In particular, the system could be used to report citizens’ web habits.

“It creates log file of all of the pages that the users tries to access,” Mr Maclay told BBC News.

“At the moment it’s unclear whether that is reported back, but it could be.”

A twitter user in China claims that the software transmits reports to Jinhui – the maker of the software – when the user tries to access blacklisted websites.

However, Zhang Chenmin, general manager of the developer of Green Dam, told the China Daily newspaper last year: “Our software is simply not capable of spying on internet users, it is only a filter.”

Although many countries around the world routinely block and filter net content, China’s regime is regarded as particularly severe.

“There is no transparency about what they are blocking,” said Mr Maclay.

Free speech campaigners are concerned that the list could be tweaked to suits the government’s aims.

Recently, there has been a web black out across China in advance of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Website such as Twitter and the photo-sharing site Flickr were blocked in an attempt by the government to prevent online discussion on the subject.

However, some users were able to bypass the filters to distribute pictures and commentary including links to photos of plain-clothes policemen blocking the lenses of foreign journalists with their umbrellas.

The country is able to take action like this because it already has a sophisticated censorship regime, including the so-called Great Firewall of China. However, it is known to have some flaws.

A 2007 study by US researchers showed that the system was much more porous than previously thought.

It found that the technology often failed to block content banned by the Chinese government, allowing web users to browse unencumbered at least some of the time.

Filtering and blocking was “particularly erratic”, they said, when large numbers of people were online in China.

Despite the failures, the researchers said, the idea of the firewall was more effective than the technology at discouraging talk about banned subjects.

This kind of social pressure was also key to another tactic used by the Chinese government to make sure its citizens only use sanitised portions of the web.

In 2007, the government introduced virtual policemen that pop-up onscreen when web surfers visit many of China’s popular website to remind them to stay away from illicit content.

In addition, the government expects internet service providers in China to actively monitor and censor published content, such as blogs.

Experiments have suggested that this approach is hit-and-miss, with some organisations more proactive than others.

However, these systems, combined with the new software, will allow the Chinese government to sanitise the web for most of the 300m of China’s population of 1.3bn have access to the net.

“I think this is intended as a sort of belt-and-braces approach, said Professor Zittrain.

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Bill Clinton meets N Korea leader (BBC)

Former US President Bill Clinton has met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during an unannounced visit to the country, state media have announced.

Mr Clinton is in Pyongyang to discuss the fate of jailed US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

He is the highest-profile American to visit since his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in 2000.

Analysts say Mr Clinton may also try to ease the deadlock over the North’s nuclear ambitions.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that Mr Clinton had “courteously” conveyed a verbal message from US President Barack Obama, although the White House said that Mr Clinton had not carried a message from Mr Obama.

John Sudworth
John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

According to North Korea’s official state media, Kim Jong-il hosted a dinner for the former US president, before the two men exchanged what is described as a “broad range of opinion”.

Face-to-face time with the North Korean leader is extremely rare for Western politicians, and granting the opportunity to Bill Clinton could be a sign that he is going to be given what he came for, the release of two American journalists.

Mr Clinton is also reported to have delivered a verbal message from President Obama, but the White House is remaining very tight lipped. It says the case of the journalists must remain separate from wider political issues.

Washington made no announcement of Mr Clinton’s trip prior to his arrival, but in a later statement stressed that this was a private visit.

“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

“We do not want to jeopardise the success of former President Clinton’s mission.”

However, North Korea analyst Prof Hazel Smith, of the UK’s Cranfield University, told the BBC that Mr Clinton would have the full backing of the White House.

“This is not a private mission, although it being billed as such,” she said. “There is no way that [former] President Clinton, married to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton… would be taking this step without the full support of the US administration.”

The last visit to North Korea by a former American president – Jimmy Carter in 1994 – led to an important step forward in relations between the two countries, and Mr Clinton may be hoping his trip could have the same effect.

But some analysts question the wisdom of such a high-profile visit so soon after North Korea conducted a string of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of the UN Security Council – saying it may be seen by Pyongyang as a reward for bad behaviour.

Unmarked plane

Mr Clinton landed in Pyongyang in an unmarked plane and was greeted at the airport by North Korean officials, including chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan and Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of parliament.

Journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling
17 March: Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling seized by North Korean border guards while reporting for California-based Current TV
8 June: Sentenced to 12 years in jail for “hostile acts” and illegal entry into North Korea
16 June: North Korea says journalists have “admitted and accepted” their guilt
10 July: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeals for an amnesty for the two
4 August: Former US President Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang to discuss the journalists’ fate

As he stepped down from the plane, a little girl came forward to present him with a bouquet of flowers.

No official itinerary for the visit has been announced.

Analysts say that Kim Jong-il is eager to improve relations with Washington as he prepares to name a successor.

Mr Kim is thought to have suffered a stroke a year ago, and also has chronic diabetes and heart disease. Analysts say his third son is already being lined up to take over power one day.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were found guilty of entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border in March, and sentenced to 12 years’ hard labour.

They were arrested by North Korean guards while filming a video about refugees for California-based internet broadcaster Current TV.

According to KCNA, the two reporters have admitted entering the country illegally.

But the women’s families have always claimed that Lee, 36, and Ling, 32, had no intention of crossing into North Korea.

They fear the two reporters may become political pawns in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

Last month US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested an amnesty for the women asking that they be allowed to return home.

Former releases

This is not the first time a senior US statesman has gone to North Korea to negotiate for the release of American citizens.

In 1994, then-congressman Bill Richardson – now governor of New Mexico – helped negotiate the release of Bobby Hall, one of two pilots of a US army helicopter shot down after straying into North Korea.

Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il on North Korean TV

North Korean media have shown images of Mr Clinton and President Kim

Two years later he negotiated the release of Evan Hunziker, who was detained on suspicion of spying after swimming the Yalu river border.

Critics say that Mr Clinton’s trip will be exploited for maximum propaganda value by Pyongyang.

However, although Bill Clinton’s arrival was covered by North Korea’s evening television news, it was not until after apparently more newsworthy items, such as the improving quality standards at a biscuit factory, our correspondent in Seoul, John Sudworth, says.

Video: North Korea


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