Posts Tagged: washington post

Nov 15

Paris Terror Attacks Stoke Encryption Debate

U.S. state and federal law enforcement officials appear poised to tap into public concern over the terror attacks in France last week to garner support for proposals that would fundamentally weaken the security of encryption technology used by U.S. corporations and citizens. Here’s a closer look at what’s going on, and why readers should be tuned in and asking questions.

encryptedeyeDespite early and widely repeated media reports that the terrorists who killed at least 128 people in Paris used strong encryption to disguise their communications, the evidence of this has failed to materialize. An initial report on Nov. 14 from Forbes titled “Why the Paris ISIS Terrorists Used PlayStation4 to Plan Attacks” was later backpedalled to “How Paris ISIS Terrorists May Have Used PlayStation 4 to Discuss and Plan.” Turns out there was actually nothing to indicate the attackers used gaming consoles to hide their communications; only that they could do that if they wanted to.

Politico ran a piece on Sunday that quoted a Belgian government official saying French authorities had confiscated at least one PlayStation 4 gaming console from one of the attacker’s belongings (hat tip to

“It’s unclear if the suspects in the attacks used PlayStation as a means of communication,” the Politico story explained. “But the sophistication of the attacks raises questions about the ability of law enforcement to detect plots as extremists use new and different forms of technology to elude investigators.”

Also on Sunday, The New York Times published a story that included this bit:

“The attackers are believed to have communicated using encryption technology, according to European officials who had been briefed on the investigation but were not authorized to speak publicly. It was not clear whether the encryption was part of widely used communications tools, like WhatsApp, which the authorities have a hard time monitoring, or something more elaborate. Intelligence officials have been pressing for more leeway to counter the growing use of encryption.”

After heavy criticism of the story on Twitter, The Times later removed the story from the site (it is archived here). That paragraph was softened into the following text, which was included in a different Times story later in the day: “European officials said they believed the Paris attackers had used some kind of encrypted communication, but offered no evidence.” To its credit, the Times today published a more detailed look at the encryption debate.

The media may be unwittingly playing into the hands of folks that former NBC reporter Bob Sullivan lovingly calls the “anti-encryption opportunists,” i.e., those who support weakening data encryption standards to make it easier for law enforcement officials to lawfully monitor people suspected of terrorist activity.

The directors of the FBI , Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency have repeated warned Congress and the technology community that they’re facing a yawning intelligence gap from smart phone and internet communication technologies that use encryption which investigators cannot crack — even after being granted the authority to do so by the U.S. courts.

For its part, the Obama administration has reportedly backed down in its bitter dispute with Silicon Valley over the encryption of data on iPhones and other digital devices.

“While the administration said it would continue to try to persuade companies like Apple and Google to assist in criminal and national security investigations, it determined that the government should not force them to breach the security of their products,” wrote Nicole Perlroth and David Sanger for The New York Times in October. “In essence, investigators will have to hope they find other ways to get what they need, from data stored in the cloud in unencrypted form or transmitted over phone lines, which are covered by a law that affects telecommunications providers but not the technology giants.”

But this hasn’t stopped proponents of weakening encryption from identifying opportunities to advance their cause. In a memo obtained in August by The Washington PostRobert Litt, a lawyer in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, wrote that the public support for weakening encryption “could turn in the event of a terrorist attack or criminal event where strong encryption can be shown to have hindered law enforcement.”

To that apparent end, law enforcement officials from Manhattan and the City of London are expected on Wednesday to release a “white paper on smartphone encryption,” during an annual financial crimes and cybersecurity symposium at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York. A media notice (PDF) about the event was sent out by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., one of the speakers at the event and a vocal proponent of building special access for law enforcement into encrypted communications. Here’s Vance in a recent New York Times op-ed on the need for the expanded surveillance powers.

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Jun 15

Catching Up on the OPM Breach

I heard from many readers last week who were curious why I had not weighed in on the massive (and apparently still unfolding) data breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Turns out, the easiest way for a reporter to make sure everything hits the fan from a cybersecurity perspective is to take a two week vacation to the other end of the world. What follows is a timeline that helped me get my head on straight about the events that preceded this breach, followed by some analysis and links to other perspectives on the matter.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

OPM offices in Washington, DC. Image: Flickr.

July 2014: OPM investigates a breach of its computer networks dating back to March 2014. Authorities trace the intrusion to China. OPM offers employees free credit monitoring and assures employees that no personal data appears to have been stolen.

Aug. 2014: It emerges that USIS, a background check provider for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was hacked. USIS offers 27,000 DHS employees credit monitoring through AllClearID (full disclosure: AllClear is an advertiser on this blog). Investigators say Chinese are hackers responsible, and that the attackers broke in by exploiting a vulnerability in an enterprise management software product from SAP. OPM soon suspends work with USIS.

November 2014: A report (PDF) by OPM’s Office of the Inspector General on the agency’s compliance with Federal Information Security Management Act finds “significant” deficiencies in the department’s IT security. The report found OPM did not maintain a comprehensive inventory of servers, databases and network devices, nor were auditors able to tell if OPM even had a vulnerability scanning program. The audit also found that multi-factor authentication (the use of a token such as a smart card, along with an access code) was not required to access OPM systems. “We believe that the volume and sensitivity of OPM systems that are operating without an active Authorization represents a material weakness in the internal control structure of the agency’s IT security program,” the report concluded.

Dec. 2014: KeyPoint, a company that took over background checks for USIS, suffers breach. OPM states that there is “no conclusive evidence to confirm sensitive information was removed from the system.” OPM vows to notify 48,439 federal workers that their information may have been exposed in the attack.

Feb. 2015: Health insurance giant Anthem discloses breach impacting nearly 80 million customers. Experts later trace domains, IP addresses implicated in attack to Chinese hackers. Anthem offers two years of free credit monitoring services through AllClearID.

May 2015: Premera Blue Cross, one of the insurance carriers that participates in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, discloses a breach affecting 11 million customers. Federal auditors at OPM warned Premera three weeks prior to the breach that its network security procedures were inadequate. Unlike the Anthem breach, the incident at Premera exposes clinical medical information in addition to personally identifiable information. Premera offers two years of free credit monitoring through Experian.

May 2015: Carefirst Blue Cross discloses breach impacting 1.1 million customers. Clues unearthed by researchers point to the same attack infrastructure and methods used in the Anthem and Premera breach. Carefirst offers two years free credit monitoring through Experian.

June 2015: OPM discloses breach affecting up to 4 million federal employees, offers 18 months of free credit monitoring through CSID. Follow-up reports indicate that the breach may extend well beyond federal employees to individuals who applied for security clearances with the federal government.


As the OPM’s Inspector General report put it, “attacks like the ones on Anthem and Premera [and OPM] are likely to increase. In these cases, the risk to Federal employees and their families will probably linger long after the free credit monitoring offered by these companies expires.”

That would appear to be the understatement of the year. The OPM runs a little program called e-QIP, which processes applications for security clearances for federal agencies, including top secret and above. This bit, from a July 10, 2014 story in The Washington Post, puts the depth and breadth of this breach in better perspective:

“In those files are huge treasure troves of personal data, including “applicants’ financial histories and investment records, children’s and relatives’ names, foreign trips taken and contacts with foreign nationals, past residences, and names of neighbors and close friends such as college roommates and co-workers. Employees log in using their Social Security numbers.”

That quote aptly explains why a nation like China might wish to hoover up data from the OPM and a network of healthcare providers that serve federal employees: If you were a state and wished to recruit foreign spies or uncover traitors within your own ranks, what sort of goldmine might this data be? Imagine having access to files that include interviews with a target’s friends and acquaintances over the years, some of whom could well have shared useful information about that person’s character flaws, weaknesses and proclivities.

For its part, China has steadfastly denied involvement. Politico cites a news story from the Chinese news service Xinhua which dismissed the U.S. allegations as “obviously another case of Washington’s habitual slander against Beijing on cybersecurity.” Continue reading →

Dec 09

Story-Driven Résumé: My Best Work 2005-2009

I began writing for The Washington Post in 1996, and started covering computer and Internet security in 1999. Below are links to what I believe is some of my best work over the past four years or so. Virtually all of the stories and blog posts listed here were either Washington Post/Security Fix exclusives, or were the result of my investigative reporting and research aimed at shining a light on the Internet’s darkest corners, and educating readers about the importance of security.

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