Posts

The Absurdity of the Present: Stealing Vaccine Research

Last week the breaking news in international political/media drama was the Russians hacking vaccine research in Europe and America, and on Tuesday the DOJ charged two Chinese hackers for hacking what Politico called “hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property and trade secrets” about vaccines for a deadly virus that is currently ravaging humanity.

Right now the world is working on a lot of vaccines, as well as treatments, for and research about the virus. We’re not just trying to end it, we’re trying to pull the virus, and ourselves, out of the fog of war that we’re in right now. Some of that research is ending up as trade secrets and intellectual property, the modern legal equivalent of what was once the secrecy of alchemists.

Russia and China are not rich countries the way the US is, though they are spending their blood and treasure on medical research and treatment just like the rest of us. Journalists and experts, particularly in cybersecurity, have blasted their efforts at hacking European and North American corporations as a kind of greed and cheating when it comes to the vaccines research process.

This all makes sense, from the perspective of the absurdity of the present moment. As Misha Glenny, a cybersecurity reporter who went on the BBC’s Newscast to blast the Russian effort to get medical research data said, “They’re just trying to get a vaccine on the cheap as far as I can see.”

Of course they are. It’s a fucking vaccine for a disease that’s causing a global pandemic.

Before we talk about how important it is to motivate biotech firm Moderna to work on a medicine that could save millions and put the planet to rights again (at least in this one way), let’s talk about where we are right now.

As of this writing, there have been 15 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 600,000 deaths. It’s clear there will be millions of deaths before the pandemic is over and millions more maimed from the inside by the disease. There is also the suffering of families and communities as folks bury some of their loved ones and support loved ones who will suffer with the long term effects of Covid-19 for years or decades. There is no global public health infrastructure or even much in the way of public health standards around the world.

Most people can’t get good quality care at the best of times, even though we have the ability as a species to provide it several times over. It’s normally bad and it’s all much worse right now. Pediatric vaccination rates has fallen through the floor the world over, and it could be that millions more children die of preventable diseases than adults of Covid-19, just because Covid-19 has wrecked public health infrastructure so badly. And with economic downturns around the world, there’s no money to pay for routine care which could cost more lives than the disease itself, again.

But there’s reasons things are shut down. The thing about a respiratory virus like SARS-CoV-2 is that it’s so aggressively transmissible that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Despite how much we all hate each other, if Russian and Chinese people can’t vaccinate against both Covid-19 and Measles, we will all pay, in blood, and treasure, and the kind of grief that takes generations to mend.

Will those generations care about Moderna, GlaxoSmithKline, or Sanofi’s Q4 2020?

No, they will not care. They will be as mystified by what we’re doing now, by what we’re valuing now, as we are by the people in history who drank mercury trying to live forever, or attached leeches to George Washington until he died of blood loss, or any of the other stupid things we did that killed people or actively spread disease over the millennia.

We still live with the biological and cultural trauma of the Black Death, and our whole world order was configured by Smallpox. But still, we are ghouls and deatheaters, asking about intellectual property rights when someone is using hacking to try to save lives, for once.

Why is any of this, any of this at all, still a secret? Why isn’t all the data and research being published and collated and poured through by the scientific community the moment the data is collected? Why are we still such ghouls when it comes to public health?

Why do children still die of Measles? Why do 10 million people fall ill with TB every year? Why, in fucking 2020, do people die of fucking Consumption?

We could stop all of this.

But we think health should be a profitable business, like it’s making fancy handbags or golf clubs or something.

We don’t think voting is something you should pay for, or that only the well enough off should be governed. We don’t think streets should turn a profit, or that you should pay a monthly fee to maintain your human rights. We don’t even think you should pay firefighters to save your house, especially since it’s going to set the rest of your city on fire. But we think Chinese people or Russians or you should pay for a vaccine, even though if you can’t, it’s going to set the rest of your city and then the world on fire.

It’s evil, it’s madness, and the fact that it’s just the way things are doesn’t make it even the tiniest bit less absurd. And my colleagues in the media would do well to point that out, and not just leave it to comment sections below their articles and Trevor Noah.


My work for Emptywheel is supported by my wonderful patrons on Patreon. You can find out more, and support my work, at Patreon. Thanks to Ryan Singel.

 


 

Cloud Computing and the Single Server

[NB: Check the byline, thanks. /~Rayne]

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. Push came to shove with Marcy’s post this past week on Roger Stone and the Russian hack of the DNC’s emails as well as her post on Rick Gates’ status update which intersects wih Roger Stone’s case.

First, an abbreviated primer about cloud computing. You’ve likely heard the term before even if you’re not an information technology professional because many of the services you use on the internet rely on cloud computing.

Blogging, for example, wouldn’t have taken off and become popular if it wasn’t for the concept of software and content storage hosted somewhere in a data center. The first blogging application I used required users to download the application and then transfer their blogpost using FTP (file transfer protocol) to a server. What a nuisance. Once platforms like Blogger provided a user application accessible by a browser as well as the blog application and hosting on a remote server, blogging exploded. This is just one example of cloud computing made commonplace.

Email is another example of cloud computing you probably don’t even think about, though some users still do use a local email client application like Microsoft’s proprietary application Outlook or Mozilla’s open source application Thunderbird. Even these client applications at a user’s fingertips rely on files received, sent, managed, and stored by software in a data center.

I won’t get into more technical terms like network attached storage or storage area network or other more challenging topics like virtualization. What the average American needs to know is that a lot of computing they come in contact every day isn’t done on desktop or laptop computers, or even servers located in a small business’s office.

A massive amount of computing and the related storage operates and resides in the cloud — a cutesy name for a remotely located data center.

This is a data center:

Located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, this is one of Google’s many data centers. In this photo you can see racks of servers and all the infrastructure supporting the servers, though some of it isn’t readily visible to the untrained eye.

This is another data center:

This is an Amazon data center, possibly one supporting Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the biggest cloud service providers. Many of the sites you visit on the internet every day purchase their hosting and other services from AWS. Some companies ‘rent’ hosting space for their email service from AWS.

Here’s a snapshot of a technician working in a Google data center:

Beneath those white tiles making up the ‘floor’ are miles and miles of network cables and wiring for power as well as ventilation systems. More cables, wires, and ventilation run overhead.

Note the red bubble I’ve added to the photo — that’s a single blade-type server inserted into a rack. It’s hard to say how much computing power and storage that one blade might have had on it because that information would have been (and remains) proprietary — made to AWS specifications, which change with technology’s improvements.

These blades are swapped out on a regular maintenance cycle, too, their load shifted to other blades as they are taken down and replaced with a new blade.

Now ask yourself which of these servers in this or some other data center might have hosted John Podesta’s emails, or those of 300 other people linked to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party targeted by Russia in the same March 2016 bulk phishing attack?

Not a single one of them — probably many of them.

And the data and applications may not stay in one server, one rack, one site alone. It could be spread all over depending on what’s most efficient and available at any time, and the architecture of failover redundancy.

~ ~ ~
Some enterprises may not rely on software-as-a-service (SaaS), like email, hosted in a massive data center cloud. They might instead operate their own email server farm. Depending on the size of the organization, this can be a server that looks not unlike a desktop computer, or it can be a server farm in a small data center.

(The Fortune 100 company for which I once worked had multiple data centers located globally, as well as smaller server clusters located on site for specialized needs, ex. a cluster collecting real-time telemetry from customers. Their very specific needs as well as the realistic possibility that smaller businesses could be spun off required more flexibility than purchasing hosted services could provide at the time.)

And some enterprises may rely on a mix of cloud-based SaaS and self-maintained and -hosted applications.

In 2016 the DNC used Microsoft Exchange Server software for its email across different servers. Like the much larger Google-hosted Gmail service, users accessed their mail through browsers or client applications on their devices. The diagrams reflecting these two different email systems aren’t very different.

This is a representation of Google’s Gmail:

[source: MakeInJava(.)com]

This is a representation of Microsoft Exchange Server:

Users, through client/browser applications, access their email on a remote server via the internet. Same-same in general terms, except for scale and location.

If you’ve been following along with the Trump-Russia investigation, you know that there’s been considerable whining on the part of the pro-Trump faction about the DNC’s email server. They question why a victim of a hack would not have turned over their server to the FBI for forensic investigation and instead went to a well-known cybersecurity firm, Crowdstrike, to both stop the hack, remove whatever invasive tools had been used, and determine the entity/ies behind the hack.

A number of articles have been written explaining the hacking scenario and laying out a timeline. A couple pieces in particular noted that turning over the server to the FBI would have been disruptive — see Kevin Poulsen in The Daily Beast last July, quoting former FBI cybercrime agent James Harris:

“In most cases you don’t even ask, you just assume you’re going to make forensic copies…For example when the Google breach happened back in 2009, agents were sent out with express instructions that you image what they allow you to image, because they’re the victim, you don’t have a search warrant, and you don’t want to disrupt their business.”

Poulsen also quantified the affected computing equipment as “140 servers, most of them cloud-based” meaning some email and other communications services may have been hosted outside the DNC’s site. It would make sense to use contracted cloud computing based on the ability to serve widespread locations and scale up as the election season crunched on.

But what’s disturbing about the demands for the server — implying the DNC’s email was located on a single computer within DNC’s physical control — is not just ignorance about cloud computing and how it works.

It’s that demands for the DNC to turn over their single server went all the way to the top of the Republican Party when Trump himself complained — from Helsinki, under Putin’s watchful eye — about the DNC’s server:

“You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why didn’t they take the server? Where is the server, I want to know, and what is the server saying?”

And the rest of the right-wing Trumpist ecosphere picked up the refrain and maintains it to this day.

Except none of them are demanding Google turn over the original Gmail servers through which John Podesta was hacked and hundreds of contacts phished.

And none of the demands are expressly about AWS servers used to host some of DNC’s email, communications, and data.

The demands are focused on some indeterminate yet singular server belonging to or used by the DNC.

~ ~ ~
The DNC had to shut down their affected equipment and remove it from their network in order to clean out the intrusion; some of their equipment had to be stripped down to “bare metal,” meaning all software and data on affected systems were removed before they were rebuilt or replaced. 180 desktops and laptops had to be replaced — a measure which in enterprise settings is highly disruptive.

Imagine, too, how sensitive DNC staff were going forward about sharing materials freely within their organization, not knowing whether someone might slip and fall prey to spearphishing. There must have been communications and impromptu retraining about information security after the hack was discovered and the network remediated.

All of this done smack in the middle of the 2016 election season — the most important days of the entire four-year-long election cycle — leading into the Democratic Party’s convention.

(This remediation still wasn’t enough because the Russians remained in the machines into October 2016.)

If the right-wing monkey horde cares only about the DNC’s “the server” and not the Google Gmail servers accessed in March 2016 or the AWS servers accessed April through October 2016, this should tell you their true aim: It’s to disrupt and shut down the DNC again.

The interference with the 2016 election wasn’t just Russian-aided disinformation attacking Hillary Clinton and allies, or Russian hacks stealing emails and other files in order to leak them through Wikileaks.

The interference included forcing the DNC to shut down and/or reroute parts of its operation:

(excerpt, p. 22, DNC lawsuit against Russian Federation, GRU, et al)

And the attack continues unabated, going into the 2020 general election season as long as the right-wing Trumpists continue to demand the DNC turn over the server.

There is no one server. The DNC shouldn’t slow or halt its operations to accommodate opponents’ and suspects’ bad faith.

~ ~ ~
As for Trump’s complaint from Helsinki: he knows diddly-squat about technology. It’s not surprising his comments reflected this.

But he made these comments in Helsinki, after meeting with Putin. Was he repeating part of what he had been told, that Russia didn’t hack the server? Was he not only parroting Putin’s denial but attempting to obstruct justice by interfering in the investigation by insisting the server needed to be physically seized for forensic inspection?

~ ~ ~
With regard to Roger Stone’s claims about Crowdstrike, his complaints aren’t just a means to distract and redirect from his personal exposure. They provide another means to disrupt the DNC’s normal business going forward.

The demands are also a means to verify what exactly the Special Counsel’s Office and Crowdstrike found in order to determine what will be more effective next time.

The interference continues under our noses.

This is an open thread.

About that Russian Hacker Story

This story is going viral on social media. The CNN article, dated October 12, describes a compromise of a FL contractor they don’t situate in time.

Federal investigators believe Russian hackers were behind cyberattacks on a contractor for Florida’s election system that may have exposed the personal data of Florida voters, according to US officials briefed on the probe.

The hack of the Florida contractor comes on the heels of hacks in Illinois, in which personal data of tens of thousands of voters may have been stolen, and one in Arizona, in which investigators now believe the data of voters was likely exposed.
Later in the article, CNN makes it clear this is the same hack as described in this earlier ABC reporting, which expands on a story from several days earlier. ABC’s reporting doesn’t date the compromise either. Rather, it explains that FL was one of four states in which hackers had succeeded in compromising data, whereas hackers had scanned voting related systems — tried to hack systems — in half the states.

As ABC News first reported Thursday, hackers have recently tried to infiltrate voter registration systems in nearly half of the states across the country –- a significantly larger cyber-assault than U.S. officials have been willing to concede.

And while officials have publicly admitted Illinois and Arizona had their systems compromised, officials have yet to acknowledge that information related to at least two other states’ voters has also been exposed.

Hackers working on behalf of the Russian government are suspected in the onslaught against election-related systems, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

And ABC’s source at least claimed that all hackers did was copy voter data.

The voter information was exposed after cyber-operatives gained entry to at least one computer associated with a private company hired to administer voter information, the sources said.

A simple “phishing” scheme –- with a malicious link or attachment sent in an email –- is likely how it all started, one source said.

“The attack was successful only in the sense that they gained access to the database, but they didn’t manipulate any of the voter [information] in the database,” the source said.

So, in spite of what people might think given the fact that the CNN is going viral right now, it doesn’t refer to a hack in conjunction with the election. It refers to a hack that happened well over a month ago. It refers to a hack that — at least according to people who have an incentive to say so — resulted only in the theft of data, not its alteration.

Both CNN and ABC use language that suggests the Russian government was behind this hack. Here’s CNN:

FBI investigators believe the the hacks and attempted intrusions of state election sites were carried out by hackers working for Russian intelligence.

And here’s ABC:

Hackers working on behalf of the Russian government are suspected in the onslaught against election-related systems, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

But (as CNN points out) the October 7 joint DNI/DHS statement on Russian hacking doesn’t attribute the voting rolls part to the Russian state.

Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.

An earlier DHS one explicitly attributes them to cybercriminals.

(U//FOUO) DHS has no indication that adversaries or criminals are planning cyber operations against US election infrastructure that would change the outcome of the coming US election. Multiple checks and redundancies in US election infrastructure—including diversity of systems, non-Internet connected voting machines, pre-election testing, and processes for media, campaign, and election officials to check, audit, and validate results—make it likely that cyber manipulation of US election systems intended to change the outcome of a national election would be detected.

(U//FOUO) We judge cybercriminals and criminal hackers are likely to continue to target personally identifiable information (PII), such as that available in voter registration databases. We have no indication, however, that criminals are planning theft of voter information to disrupt or alter US computer-enabled election infrastructure.

There were known instances of identity thieves hacking voting rolls going back some time, so it is possible that’s all this was about.

We learned recently that FBI Director Comey pointedly did not want to be included on the joint DNI/DHS statement, because it was too close to the election. So it’s possible there was disagreement about that part of it (which might explain the FBI-sourced leak to CNN).

Also note, I believe the known hackers used different methods, including both SQL injection and phishing. If in response to the earlier ones, DHS did a review of voting systems and found a number of phishes using the same methods as GRU, that may explain why FBI would say it was Russian.

In any case, we don’t know what happened, and at least public claims say the hackers didn’t alter any data.

But the CNN story, at least, is not about something that just happened.

Update: Fixed some typos and clarity problems.