Tag Archives: social history of computing

Wikileaks to release emails from Stratfor hack

In December, members of the Antisec wing of the collective Anonymous claimed to have downloaded the email spools of the private intelligence firm Stratfor.  Today, Wikileaks held a press conference in which they announced that over 20 media organizations had been secretly analyzing the 5 million+ emails, and they would now begin releasing the emails.  A few stories in mainstream western media have now appeared (e.g., Forbes, Wired).  I’ve followed this hack a bit, and I played the video of the Wikileaks press conference in the background this morning.  Here are a few things that interested me about the press conference that I haven’t seen in media reports.

Most striking to me was how differently reporters assessed the accuracy of Stratfor’s intel, depending on geography.  Apparently, Stratfor investigated PETA on behalf of Coca-Cola, and investigated Bhopal activists on behalf of Dow Chemical.  While some might find this concerning, I didn’t hear any indication that the information obtained by those efforts was false.  In contrast, two reporters from the Al Akhbar newspaper in Lebanon stated that much of the information gathered about the situation in Beiruit was false.

The Al Akhbar reporters said this situation was a particular problem, because the CIA was recently forced to shut down its intelligence operations in Lebanon.  This increased US reliance on a private firm like Stratfor.  Apparently, though, Stratfor, to maximize profits, provided a lot of intel on Lebanon by using Google Translate to read open source material written in Arabic, literally losing the meaning in translation, instead of hiring analysts fluent in the language.  Further, their evaluation of sources was, according to one reporter, “racist” in the sense that if an ideologically extreme Arab made a statement and an ideologically extreme Israeli made a different statement, Stratfor analysts would discount the Arab and take the Israeli seriously.

I’ve read only a few of the emails myself, and I can’t speak to the accuracy of any claim.  However, it does seem clear that the notion of Stratfor just being a service that reads and analyzes open-source material is incorrect.  Unless the released emails are heavily fabricated, Stratfor initiated intelligence gathering operations on the ground, bribed confidential informants around the world, and encouraged their employees to control sources by “psychological” or “sexual” means.

Finally, no matter your personal political persuasion, Stratfor’s internal glossary of intelligence terms is hilarious.  I will close with some definitions from it.

Backgrounder: General analysis that gives the customer better situational awareness. The customer never actually reads the Backgrounder. Its primary use is as cover when the customer screws something up. Backgrounders are the basic intelligence tool for shifting blame to the customer.

or

He Won the Cold War: Egomaniacal Bullshitter

and

He Won the Vietnam War: Deranged Egomaniacal Bulshitter

and, in conclusion, a definition made more intriguing by (and perhaps at odds with) the claims of the Al Akhbar reporters:

Duplicitous Little Bastards: Israeli intelligence

Password analysis from the Stratfor hack

I will return to blogging about theoretical computer science and algorithm-related mathematics next week, but I wanted to take a few minutes today to mention a rare research opportunity that has arisen as a result of the hack of the private global intelligence company Stratfor.  This opportunity is the list of 860,000 (MD5 hashed) passwords to accounts of people in journalism, government contracting, the military, etc. — in short, people who “should” know how to create and maintain strong passwords.  Most of the MD5 hashes have now been cracked, and preliminary analysis indicates that even people who “know what they are doing” use weak passwords.

Stratfor, by the way, finally has their website back online, with a Hacking News section, in which they tell their side of the story.  (They verify that they stored credit card information in cleartext, as Anonymous had claimed, and they state that they were working with the FBI on an investigation into a hack of their systems before the hack went public on Christmas Eve.)  About a week ago, the hackers released a zine which includes a press release about the Stratfor hack and two others, and a log of the hacks themselves.

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Update on HBGary Federal and Anonymous

In a previous post, I discussed how Anonymous hacked into HBGary Federal and exposed plans to use false documents and sock puppetry to discredit Wikileaks and US labor unions.  The US Congress has begun a formal investigation into the relationship between the Department of Defense and the companies HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies, and Berico Technologies.  (Article by Wired; by Forbes.)

Of perhaps more significance to the social history of computing, Anonymous has started a recruitment campaign, Operation New Blood (#opnewblood), based on their success in taking down professional security firms, and exposing the plans against Wikileaks and unions.  There is quite a bit of motion around this, including, for example, a well-produced recruitment video that is labeled as a class project.  The video is almost seven minutes long; I will quote a couple excerpts.

With a company in shambles, a CEO’s life derailed, and a dark secret uncovered, Anonymous is beginning to look less like a hacker group.  It begins to look like your best interest, as well as mine….  Since the conception of Anonymous, they have been responsible for various operations around the world, from bringing Internet service to the Egyptian people during their recent revolution, to opposing massive government agencies and corporations.

To be clear, I’m not a member of Anonymous, nor do I intend to become one, if for no other reason than my belief that structure and government are actually necessary, and I don’t see a future in anarchic movements.  However, I think this situation is a big deal, because I expect the recruitment push to find significant traction among people with computer skills who feel disaffected by society — and that group of disaffected computer folk is growing, as computer science becomes deprofessionalized.  I also believe — though I have no hard evidence for this — that the age and economic standing of the “average active Anon” is already on the rise, because over the last several years, their activities seem to have moved from juvenile baiting to occasional “freedom fighting” to this current position of an Emma Goldmanesque anarchic class warfare.

I predict a marked increase in politically and economically motivated hacktivism over the next five years, and a concomitant governmental backlash of aggressive new laws and enforcement on the use of computers and the posting and transfer of data.

The deprofessionalization of computer science

Source: The Economist

I don’t mean by the title that computer scientists are behaving less professionally.  Rather, I mean that the jobs available for people with advanced degrees in computer science have much lower professional standing than they did even five years ago, to say nothing of 25.  This happened to social workers in the 1970s, and to physicists in the 1980s.  A convenient slogan to explain this situation is that there are “too many PhD’s” in those fields.  The connotation to such a phrase is, “Well, aren’t you stupid for going into a career that has no future, it’s your fault you’re facing problems now, stop whining.”  However, if we step back from the slogan, and question its context, we can see a larger picture.  There are too many PhDs for a society that does not value research enough to provide jobs for those qualified to perform it. Continue reading