This is probably the most telling moment of how US President Barack Obama is still on the wrong frequency on cyber matters…
Obama blamed the “impact on their [the tech companies] bottom lines” for the mistrust between the government and Silicon Valley in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. These were his words, straight from the POTUSA mouth rather than reading from the scripts, in an exclusive interview with Re/code’s Kara Swisher (see video below) following the well publicized cybersecurity summit at Stanford University last Friday, when he signed an executive order to encourage the private sector to share cybersecurity threat information with other companies and the US government.
Contrast that with the high-profile speech by Apple CEO Tim Cook (see video below), who warned about “life and death” and “dire consequences” in sacrificing the right to privacy as technology companies had a duty to protect their customers.
His speech was delivered before Obama’s address to the summit – which the White House organized to foster better cooperation and the sharing of private information with Silicon Valley – best remembered for the absence of leaders from tech giants like Google, Yahoo and Facebook who gave Obama the snub amid growing tensions between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration. Heavyweights whom Obama counted as “my friends” in the Re/code interview (watch closely his expression at the 39th second of the clip above).
As it so happened, everything started and ended in Geneva…
It was a cold morning in mid-December 2008. Hervé Falciani has just finished packing his favorite black Rimowa luggage and a small handy leather bag with his five precious CDs safely tucked to the bottom.
“Mate I’m getting ready to leave for Nice for a few days, to do you know what,” he wrote on his encrypted email.
“Good luck mate. That’s the spirit. Am actually planning to get myself out of Geneva and home for good shortly after the New Year. Keep those stuff safe,” the reply promptly appeared on the computer screen.
“Will do. Thanks so much for all the guidance. Take care!” Falciani penned off, half-wishing his pal Snowden was not serious about leaving Geneva.
Well, that was probably how John le Carré approached his next best-selling spy novel but this opening scene may not be too far from the truth.
Falciani was widely dubbed the Snowden of the banking world when the HSBC exposé stole global headlines early this week. According to his profile, the then-36-year-old dual French-Italian national joined the British banking giant HSBC in 2000, in Monaco where he grew up, and was transferred to HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) in Geneva, Switzerland in 2006.
That was the same year Edward Snowden joined the CIA and the now famous whistleblower behind the NSA revelations was posted to Geneva the following year under diplomatic cover, where he admitted having grown disillusioned with American spy craft. He left Geneva and the agency in 2009.
And as an undercover CIA operative based in Geneva, Snowden probably knew some bankers as The Guardian once reported:
He described as formative an incident in which he claimed CIA operatives were attempting to recruit a Swiss banker to obtain secret banking information. Snowden said they achieved this by purposely getting the banker drunk and encouraging him to drive home in his car. When the banker was arrested for drunk driving, the undercover agent seeking to befriend him offered to help, and a bond was formed that led to successful recruitment.
The possibility that Snowden and Falciani knew each other may be a novelist’s creation and a trivial even if it’s true. But nevertheless, it would open up many possibilities.
Consider, for example, both claimed to have reported to their superiors, who ignored their respective complaints and warnings. Both became whistleblowers and accused for their actions. The two IT experts stole and released troves of internal data to the media – Falciani, the systems specialist of the HSBC Private Bank in Geneva now under the global spotlights, reportedly met French tax investigators at a cafe in Nice airport before Christmas of 2008 and handed them five CDs worth of confidential data pertaining to some 130,000 clients and 300,000 private accounts from 200 countries – which eventually reached then Finance Minister of France Christine Lagarde, who subsequently shared it with other countries.
Snowden is scheduled to speak via video-conference this Friday to the International Students For Liberty Conference in downtown Washington, D.C. Would be interesting to hear what he has to say about the HSBC exposé and… his friend Falciani.
Congratulations to The Guardian for winning an Emmy award in New York Tuesday night for its groundbreaking coverage on the Snowden revelations.
The multimedia interactive feature NSA Decoded by The Guardian emerged the winner in the new approaches: current news category at the news and documentary Emmy awards.
The interactive coverage, which includes interviews and discussions with key players like journalist Glenn Greenwald, former NSA employees, senators and members of US congress, helps the audience understand the facts and implications of Edward Snowden’s disclosures last year about the NSA’s mass surveillance program.
The Guardian has also won in April, along with the Washington Post, the Pulitzer prize for public service for their groundbreaking coverage of the Snowden revelations.
The latest Snowden revelations include a leaked document that lists the cyber-spy tools and techniques used by the American NSA’s UK counterpart GCHQ, according to a BBC News report.
More disturbing point: the GCHQ apparently used its toolbox to find ways to “alter the outcome of online polls, find private Facebook photos, and send spoof emails that appeared to be from Blackberry users, among other things”.
It’s the one year anniversary of what is now known as the Snowden revelations, which appeared on June 5 and June 9 when The Guardian broke news of classified National Security Agency documents and Edward Snowden revealed himself in Hong Kong as the source of those leaks.
There is still much to decipher from the chronology of events in the aftermath and the sudden global awakening to the end of privacy. Among the impacts on the personal, business and political fronts, one interesting salient feature is the hypocritical rhetorical spats between the US and China in recent weeks, which could set the undertone for US-Sino relations for years to come.
Snowden said his biggest fear is that nothing would change following his bold decision a year ago.
Is privacy and a secure email on your wish list? How does the “most secure email program” sound to you? Or rather, is that still possible in this post-Snowden era? How about a completely secure search engine?
Find out more from my latest column here and there.
Defense Secretary Hagel Faces a Tough Time Explaining This to China
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced at the National Security Agency headquarters last Friday that the Pentagon would triple its cyber security staff – to 6,000 – over the next few years to defend against computer-based attacks.
That’s great. I wonder how Hagel is going to face the music when he visits China later this week where he expects to be grilled on the latest NSA revelations and aggressive US cyber spying. Just last month, it was revealed that the NSA has for years assessed the networks of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which the US House of Representatives has long advocated that US companies should avoid on the grounds of national security.
Find out more from my latest column here and there.
There is an unspoken underlying tension in the workplace on privacy matters relating to office telephones, computers, emails, documents, CCTV cameras, etc. Employers like to think they reserve the right to probe what they consider their property while employees believe their turf is clear from invasion.
This tension is nowhere better exemplified than by reports last Thursday that operatives with US tech giant Microsoft Inc. hacked into a blogger’s Hotmail account in the course of an investigation to try to identify an employee accused of stealing Microsoft trade secrets.
And it is not uncommon in my business to encounter client complaints about potential espionage and other alleged misconduct by their employees, leading to their consideration to search the (company-owned) computers, emails, phone records, etc.
Find out more from my latest column here and there.
The latest hack on Bitcoin exchange Mt.Gox, leading to its sudden bankruptcy late February, and the spate of recent cyber-attacks have prompted warnings of a wave of serious cybercrimes ahead as hackers continue to breach the antiquated payment systems of companies like many top retailers.
Stock exchange regulators like the American SEC have rules for disclosures when company database were hacked but the general public is often at the mercy of private companies less inclined or compelled to raise red flags.
The private sector, policymakers and regulators have been slow to respond and address the increasing threats and sophistication of cybercriminals – only 11 percent of companies adopt industry-standard security measures, leaving our personal data highly vulnerable.
Time for a standardized data breach law?
Find out more from my latest column posted here and there.
Bad news for those who say ‘If only the walls could talk’. They can.
Hotel rooms are never safe havens as spies know only too well, but warnings of the risk often fall on deaf ears, to the sorrow or sometimes embarrassment of the tenants. Two recent news stories and the episode that I describe below hopefully change the public perceptions.
The stories describe how the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has traced and wiretapped top diplomats in their hotel suites over the past three years through its secret “Royal Concierge” program, which tracked some 350 hotels across the world, according to documents exposed by the former US intelligence contractor turned fugitive Edward Snowden.
Separately, it emerged in media reports last week that US President Barack Obama takes extreme measures to ward off any threats of secret video or audio surveillance by setting up an anti-spy portable tent in his hotel suite when traveling abroad, including in allied countries that the US allegedly targeted in conducting massive surveillance against foreign leaders and citizens. That amplifies the deep US concerns about being spied upon as much as spying on its friends and risks inviting potential hypocritical labeling of the White House.
I have written previously about the risk but there is much more than meets the eye, including an interesting exchange I once had with a foreign agent about the spy trade and hotel room risks.
Security officials leave an easily tapped device in closed-door conferences of European leaders
In photos made public of several closed-door bilateral meetings between various European leaders last week, there were two common denominators. One was the presence of the French President Francois Hollande. The other was the VoIP phone on the desk. The question is: What is that phone doing there?
In the middle of a major brouhaha over charges that the US National Security Agency had allegedly monitored the phone conversations of foreign diplomats, the officials in those photos were speaking to each other in the presence of this easily-tapped device.
What these these photos highlight is a security lapse, thus generating many questions: What else have European countries missed and not done to better protect their leaders from American or any eavesdropping?
NSA Snooping Compromises the Cloud Computing Industry
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg complained last week that trust in social networks and Internet companies has dived ever since cyber snooping and spying activities by the US National Security Agency began to make global headlines earlier this year.
It is no surprise. In fact, as fugitive former NSA operative Edward Snowden pointed out, the encryption system adopted by the International Organization for Standardization and its 163 member countries were actually written by the NSA, convincing proof that online platforms being used by Internet companies and the commercial world, including banks, could in fact be easily compromised by the NSA.
In other words, the NSA designed their own secret back door into the global encryption system for their convenience. So until the encryption system has been overhauled and taken away from NSA’s control, no server and no cloud service provider is secure enough to be entrusted with any confidential data.
So why then are blindly trusting companies still moving ever more data into the cloud and onto servers, where online access to highly confidential information related to clients, customers, employees, deals, business plans and performances, etc., is available to the US snoops?
If you have ever got the feeling someone was watching you while you were using your computer, tablet or smartphone, it could be because someone is. You may well be sitting there while someone, somewhere out there, is commanding your electronic device to transmit pictures of you and what you are doing.
You might assume that if you haven’t given electronic orders to the camera, it’s shut off. But this might send a chill down your back. The friendly folks at the US’s National Security Agency – the omnipresent spy agency dominating the news, and not in a good way – recently released a little two-page primer on tips to “harden” your computer against attacks.
If even the NSA doesn’t trust those Webcams, why should you?
Plus, there are reportedly now special spy apps designed for smartphones. You don’t have to be interested in them. You don’t have to buy and install these apps. More importantly, you don’t even need to know about them. Their very existence simply makes everyone highly vulnerable.
For Whom the Bell Tolls was a 1940 novel by Ernest Hemingway about an American in the International Brigades who blows up a bridge during the Spanish Civil War with death the ultimate sacrifice.
But what about For Whom The Whistle Blows? That informs the current debate about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, two Americans who risked their lives by leaking documents on US foreign policy and covert cyber-snooping activities during the US war on terrorism. Are they prisoners – one in a US army stockade and the other in exile in Moscow – of conscience?
In contrast to the contemptuous labels and espionage charges the US government slapped on the two, one a US Army private first class and the other a former government intelligence contractor, both claimed their motive was to spark public debate and promote greater transparency in US government conduct. Whistle-blowers in general have all along been quite rightly championed and heralded by the authorities, media and the general public – at least by those whose oxen are not being gored from the revelations. Such are the dichotomies of modern history.
Or was Dick Cheney looking for a cheap excuse to play politics?
Edward Snowden with his sudden departure from Hong Kong for Moscow and eventually elsewhere, possibly a country hostile to the US, would reignite the question if he’s a spy or double agent.
But the allegations made last week by former US vice president Dick Cheney that the National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden could be a spy for China is off track, and he knows it, and are a deliberate public distraction as the Obama administration searches for scapegoats in the midst of defending the NSA surveillance programs with their one and only trump card.
Snowden left with his passport annulled, a warrant on his head plus criminal charges of espionage, theft and communicating classified intelligence to unauthorized persons.
But here is the dichotomy: While the corporate world is still coping with US regulations on better corporate governance practices, where does the notion of whistleblowing stand right now?
The world knows by now Edward Snowden, the former private contractor for the National Security Agency who leaked revelations of massive US clandestine electronic surveillance and eavesdropping programs, is still at large in Hong Kong.
You might wonder how Snowden managed to remain obscure, both in the physical and cyber spheres.
Hong Kong, a former British colony now a major global financial center and Special Administrative Region of China, is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with a population of over seven million spread over just 1,104 square kilometers.
But it is precisely for these reasons that Hong Kong may be the ideal place. One could be easily spotted or located or one could capitalize on the dense crowd and modern infrastructure to negotiate his way unnoticed in the physical, digital and cyber dimensions.
And Snowden sure knows how to do that.
So what would you do if you were Snowden or if you simply needed to hide and remain undetectable for a period of time?
Take your pick: Edward Snowden, Internet and phone service providers, or just everybody?
The furor over the past week about how US intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have for years scooped up massive loads of private communications data raises one critical and distressing question.
Who, worldwide and in the US, are the general public supposed to trust now that it seems all forms of digital and cyber communications risk being read by the American authorities? The Americans, it seems, don’t believe it’s that big a deal. By 62-34, according to the latest poll by Pew Research and the Washington Post, they say it’s more important to investigate the threats than protect their privacy. But what about the rest of the world?
The immediate acknowledgement, rather than point blank denial, of the massive clandestine eavesdropping programs is no doubt alarming even for those long suspicious of such covert undertakings. But the more disturbing part is that the official response amounts to plain outright lies.