Thursday, October 30, 2014

Journalist Makes Bizarre Claims about Hacking

Yeah, it's the Google Private
Browsing icon again.
I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t address the recent news (that just came to my attention) about Sheryl Attkisson, a former CBS News correspondent who claims that the government has hacked into her computers, phones, and television. While I’m quite willing to believe that the government has insufficient qualms about spying without a warrant, in Attkisson’s case, I think her claims are utter bullshit (and that’s a technical IT term).

Oh, and she’s written a book, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington. Thumbs up for the use of the serial comma in the title. No points for anything else that has been revealed from the book.

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post has been reporting on this for a while, though I think he fails in his job as a journalist in that he has reported Attkisson’s side of things, without seeming to ever get to the part where someone else evaluates these claims. Let’s be serious: if I claimed that the government was poisoning me (and only me) but introducing undetectable toxins into my food, everyone would think I was a nutcase. Attkisson’s claims are a little nuttier than that.

Temple quoted a bit of Stonewalled on his blog on October 28.
Terry tells me of a conversation he’d had with my husband back in 2011. He’d noticed a white utility truck parked up the street by a pond. “I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all,” he tells me now, shaking his head… . “I didn’t like it because I recognized the type of truck and the type of antennae it had. And if you look” — he points up the street — “there’s a direct line of sight from where it was parked to your house.”
“Terry” is the pseudonym given to one computer expert. Oh no! There was a white utility truck parked on Attkisson’s street! A white utility truck! I have seen white utility trucks on my street several times, and in many cases, they have had a direct line of sight to my house. There have been cable installers, plumbers, and even a washing machine repairman. Clearly, my neighborhood is under surveillance by the government. It’s all that writing I do about Esperanto, probably. They’re probably accessing this blog right now without leaving any record of page clicks (they’re sneaky like that).

Another source, whom Attkisson names only as “Number One” (fess up, Sheryl, it’s Obama himself, right?) met with her at a McDonald’s (okay, not Obama; Michelle Obama wouldn’t approve of Barack eating at McDonald’s) and claimed (according to Wemple’s blog post of October 27) that
The breaches on Attkisson’s computer, says this source, are coming from a “sophisticated entity that used commercial, nonattributable spyware that’s proprietary to a government agency: either the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Agency (NSA).” Attkisson learns from “Number One” that one intrusion was launched from the WiFi at a Ritz Carlton Hotel and the “intruders discovered my Skype account handle, stole the password, activated the audio, and made heavy use of it, presumably as a listening tool.”
If it’s “nonattributable” (a word that spell check on my Mac doesn’t like, so I wonder why Attkisson ran with it, instead of using “unattributable,” which is a real word, unless of course, there is a government plot against Attkisson to make her use unattributable words), then how “Number One” able to attribute it to a government agency? And how was it unattributably attributed to the government. Did the code have a string in it stating “this surveillance software © U. S. Government”?

It’s certainly possible to sniff computers. I just recently read a piece which noted that people intent on hacking can spoof open WiFi networks and then look at the data coming to and from the computer, even penetrating further (it was actually pretty scary, given the number of times I’ve put my devices on public networks). On the other hand, I doubt that Skype can access a computer’s audio when it’s not even turned on.

Wemple has written about Attkisson’s book nine times in the last week, largely in an uncritical fashion, though one of the posts is about how Chris Stigall, a radio host in Philadelphia criticized Wemple for a post in which he notes that Attkisson claims to know who hacked her computer, but is not prepared to release the information. On this charge, Stigall is clearly wrong. Wemple has practically been Attkisson’s press agent. He quotes Stigall as saying
You’re a journalist, supposedly. This should scare the pants off of you. You’re the first line of defense, supposedly. Our founders thought guys like you deserved freedom and protection to stop stuff like this happening to people like Sharyl [Attkisson] and instead you attack Sharyl? You attack me? Screw you! You’re next, man. You could be if you’re not already. But you’re too busy being partisan there at the Washington Post
Sorry, Mr. Stigall, but when a reporter deals in vague, often impossible claims, it’s the job of journalists to see if their claims can be substantiated. If I were Wemple, I’d be calling up security experts and separately ask them to examine Attkisson’s claims.

I should note in closing, that the “Load More” button on the Washington Post website did not work for me in Safari and I had to try the page in Chrome. From this I can assume that one of three things is true:
  1. The Washington Post has a shitty website.
  2. The U.S. government didn’t want me to read more of Wemple’s blog posts and Apple was complicit with with them.
  3. Aliens. Aliens are in a white utility truck somewhere in the vicinity of my home and they’re controlling my computer through their sophisticated technology.
Gotta be #3. Excuse me while I contact Harper (Attkisson’s publisher) with a pitch for a book! And I promise not to use “nonattributed” where “unattributed” would serve.
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