Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Can foreign elements (religious or conventionally totalitarian) silence ordinary criticism in the West with cyber-war?

I’ve started reading Flemming Rose’s book "The Tyranny of Silence", from the Cato Institute, motivated by the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Controversy, before the recent attacks in France.  The artist and journalist discusses the attempts of some religious groups and authoritarian governments to stifle any discussion of their behavior, to the point of creating security problems, online and in the real world, for civilian companies and even individuals is the West.  The recent hack of Sony Pictures, putatively with the approval of North Korea, is the most glaring example (followed by horror in Paris).
So now, whenever there is some kind of disruption or an incident online, one “watches his back” and has to wonder if it could come from this kind of hostility.  Often disruptions occur for legitimate technical hiccoughs or hardware problems, but the individual journalist winds up playing detective and an adjunct to police and homeland security, ruling out something more sinister.  Jokes are not funny.
Earlier this week, my main “” site was down for about 18 hours, giving a “connection refused”.  Typically, when I site goes down it just hangs, but this time it was deliberately offline.  The site has shared hosting, and I was told there was emergency maintenance on the server.  I suppose it can sometimes take a whole day to rebuild a server (from various backups) if there is a major random hardware failure.  But this had been a very rare event.  And there were some coincidences.
Two days before, I had made some of my most provocative blog postings, although not on this domain.  Then, I got a bizarre email, saying that the “.info” domain name up for the site was due for renewal.  I wondered it this was a phish, because I had never ordered a “.info” domain.  I couldn’t find it on “WHOIS”.  The phone number in the email was different from the one on the hoting website.  But when spent twenty minutes on the phone, I found out it was legitimate. 

But you can see how hacking and phishing attacks are causing businesses and individuals to become suspicious of even legitimate offers or communications.  Remember, phishing attacks trying to take over domain names have indeed occurred. 
Then there was another little scare.  Back in 2002, two files on the precursor to this site (at the time, on an Unix server with the old “” domain name) had been hacked.  The hack actually had started in the middle of a preview of an essay that discussed 9/11, that would become a chapter in my DADT-II book (2002).  The particular passage where the hack started dealt with “suitcase” nuclear weapons as possibly a weapon of future terror.  The hack had spilled onto one other file.  It turned out that the ISP had left a “Site command” backdoor open, a major security lapse that was plugged quickly.  The hack would never occur again to this day. (The overlaying material seemed to be bizarre jibberish about Russia and Finland.)

I found that while the site was down, I could view cached copies from Google through Chrome very easily.  But these two files, even in cache, could not be found.  (That was true of a few other larger files.)  I wondered if there was something sinister.  For a moment, I thought about calling the FBI. Then, I discovered that if you actually entered the title of the web page as a search argument first, the cache copy really would come up, so it did have something to do with the coding of Google’s caching algorithm, and no other sinister meaning.  Fortunately, about that time, the outage would get fixed.
We’ve heard a lot about hacks of social media accounts of celebrities, much more on Twitter than anywhere else (so apparently Twitter needs to do more work on its security, relatively speaking).  We’ve heard about hacks on individual accounts, where 2-step verification is seen as the major security improvement and prophylactic.  It remains to be seen if service providers and web hosts are still vulnerable directly, and the implications of any such security weakness have the potential to be quite chilling.
One thing to remember, coincidences do happen and can make an incident appear worse than it is.  That incident when I was substitute teaching back in 2005 gives a good example. 
I’ll review the book by Flemming Rose as soon as I finish it, on the books blog. It seems very important.  But religious extremists may not be the only enemies of global free speech and willing to go to any lengths to stop it.  

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