Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Cyber Threats: System Failures & Living in Denial

By Greg Guma

In August 2010, when Foreign Policy posted an article citing credible research and directly warned oil companies worldwide that their offshore oil rigs were highly vulnerable to hacking, few people took notice.
     “Computer commands can derail a train or cause a gas pipeline to burst,” warned former Bush administration counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke a few years later in Cyber War, his book on the topic. The reaction: mainly silence. Until recently, such scenarios seemed more like movie plots than foreign policy concerns, and the threat looked more domestic than foreign. 
     In early 2009, for instance, a 28-year-old contractor in California was charged in federal court with almost disabling an offshore rig. Prosecutors said the contractor, who was allegedly angry about not being hired full time, had hacked into the computerized network of an oil-rig off the coast, specifically the controls that detect leaks. He caused damage, but fortunately not a leak.
     After the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico the Christian Science Monitor reported that at least three US oil companies had been targets in a series of cyber attacks. The culprit was most likely someone or some group in China, and the incidents, largely un-reported for several years, had involved Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips. But the companies apparently didn’t realize how serious their problem was until the FBI alerted them.
     At the time, federal officials said that proprietary information – email passwords, messages, and information linked to executives – had been flowing out to computers overseas. Chinese government involvement could not be confirmed, but some data did end up on a computer in China. One oil company security staffer privately coined the term “China virus.”
     Still, the companies generally preferred not to comment, or even admit that the attacks had happened. But the Monitor persisted, interviewing insiders, officials and cyber attack experts, and ultimately confirmed the details. Their overall conclusion was that cyber-burglars, using spyware that is almost undetectable, pose a serious and potentially dangerous threat to private industry.
     According to Clarke, many nations conduct Internet espionage and sometimes even cyber attacks. China has been aggressive at times, but so have Russia and North Korea. Spying on defense agencies and diplomats has been one major focus; strategically important businesses and even national governments have also been targeted.
     In 2011, when I first published an article on the problem, Google claimed that it had evidence of at least 20 companies that had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, logic bombs were being infiltrated into the US electric power grid. If so, they could operate like time bombs. Now it looks likely that Russia was the actual culprit, or had the same idea.
     On oil rigs, the advent of robot-controlled platforms has made a cyber attack possible with a computer anywhere in the world. Control of a rig could be accomplished by hacking into the "integrated operations" that link onshore computer networks to offshore ones. Until 2018 few experts would speculate publicly that this may already have happened. But there has been confirmation of computer viruses causing personnel injuries and production losses on North Sea platforms for several years.
     One problem is that even though newer rigs have cutting-edge robotics technology, the software that controls their basic functions can still be old school. Many rely on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software, which was created in an era when "open source" was more important than security.
     "It's underappreciated how vulnerable some of these systems are," warned Jeff Vail, a former counterterrorism and intelligence analyst with the US Interior Department who talked with Greg Grant, author of the Foreign Policy article. "It is possible, if you really understood them, to cause catastrophic damage by causing safety systems to fail."
     The name of the article, by the way, was “The New Threat to Oil Supplies – Hackers.” It sounds a lot like “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the US.”
     To be fair, the US government’s failure to address private-sector vulnerability to cyber attacks goes back decades. Until recently, however, Congress and various administrations hesitated to challenge the status quo. Given the vulnerability of crucial infrastructure and much of the private sector, surprisingly little was done to prepare for what sounds inevitable.
     The US Cyber Command has attempted to protect federal infrastructure, while various branches of the military have developed their own offensive capabilities. But not even the Department of Homeland Security is officially responsible for protecting the private sector.  Legal and privacy issues get in the way of having the government directly monitor the Internet or business operations for evidence of potential cyber attacks. As you might expect, many businesses are wary of the regulations that might accompany government help.
     Though cyber attacks have clearly happened, many leave no obvious trace. As Clarke explained, corporations tend to believe that the “millions of dollars they have spent on computer security systems means they have successfully protected their company’s secrets.” Unfortunately, they are wrong. Intrusion detection and prevention systems sometimes fail.
     As it stands, no single federal agency is responsible for defending the banking system, power grids and oil rigs from attacks. The prevailing logic is that businesses should handle their own security. Yet their experts readily admit that they wouldn’t know what to do if an attack came from another nation, and assume that defense in such a case would be the government’s job.That’s capitalist thinking for you, private interests but socialized costs.
     In 2011, a US Senate bill sponsored by Democrat Jay Rockefeller and Republican Olympia Snowe sought to change that, but became another victim of DC gridlock. It would have required the president to work with the private sector on a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy, created a joint public-private advisory board, and led to a Senate-confirmed national security adviser position. Rockefeller said the goal was “unprecedented information sharing between government and the private sector.”
     James Fallows has argued that the US suffers from “a conspiracy of secrecy about the scale of cyber risk.” His point was that many companies simply won’t admit how easily they can be infiltrated. As a result, changes in the law, the regulatory environment, or personal habits that could increase safety are not seriously discussed.  

      But sooner or later, Fallows concluded, “the cyber equivalent of 9/11 will occur.” That prediction is bad enough. But then he adds, “if the real 9/11 is a model, we will understandably, but destructively, overreact.” 
      So we’ve also got that to look forward to.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Fake News Is Focus of UVM Talk and New Book

BURLINGTON —  On March 15, Vermont-based author and activist Greg Guma will discuss “Journalism In the Era of Fake News” at the UVM Alumni House, presented by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The presentation will cover many of the themes in his new book, which was released in February. 

This is Guma’s tenth book. Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Deceptions is brief, but takes on a large and timely topic — the challenges confronting journalism in a post-modern era characterized by fraud and scandal, questionable elections, corrupt leaders, and phony news. It argues that sophisticated tools have been used for years by governments and private interests to promote false or misleading stories, messages and narratives. But when people repeatedly exposed to lies are confronted with the truth, too many double down and believe the lies even more. 

Topics in the book and upcoming talk include the recent weaponizing of the term “fake news”; hoaxes, fabricated stories and false flag operations throughout history; the use of perception management strategies by governments and private interests; election manipulation and post-truth problems; the dangers of polarization and how people can avoid living in a bubble. One of the incidents revisited in the book is a 1978 disinformation campaign in Vermont.

A previous book by Guma, The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, was cited in coverage of Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election. The author was a frequently quoted source, learning first-hand how national journalists develop and shape narratives. In 2015 he was a candidate for Burlington mayor. Guma’s background in journalism dates back to work as a daily newspaper reporter and photographer in the late 1960s, and ranges from editing periodicals like the Vermont Vanguard Press, Toward Freedom and Vermont Guardian to managing the national Pacifica radio network.  

In 2003, the University of Vermont received initial funding from the Bernard Osher foundation to establish lifelong learning institutes that provide courses and programs for Vermonters age 50 and over. Three years later, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute was permanently established at UVM. Other Institutes offer non-credit courses and programs at affordable prices in nine Vermont communities.

To attend “Journalism in the Era of Fake News,” visit OLLI’s website at,  or contact Lora Phillips at 802-656-2085 or Guma will speak at 5:30 p.m. in the Pavilion of the university’s Alumni House at 61 Summit Street. Enrollment and seating are limited.

Fake News: Journalism in the Age of Deceptons can be sampled or purchased for any electronic device. An illustrated paperback edition was released on Feb. 27. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir


  Dangerous Words: A Political Memoir
   By Greg Guma


Audio Prologue ON THE AIR: Burlington Reflections (May 2016)
(One month later Burlington College was closed)

Part One: Education of an Outsider (1960-1968)

Part Two: Fragile Paradise  (1968-1978)

Part Three: Prelude to a Revolution (1974-1978)

The People's Republic: Vermont & Bernie Sanders

A revealing look at the rise of Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement that changed Vermont

Available from Maverick Media

Mentioned during the 2016 Presidential campaign in...

Mother Jones: How Bernie Sanders Became a Real Politician
New York Times: Bernie Sanders' Revolutionary Roots
CNN: Can Bernie Sanders Win Black Voters?
Politico: 14 Things Bernie Has Said about Socialism
Politico: Bernie Sanders Has a Secret
Washington Post: Sanders is in with the enemy, so old allies say
CNN: How Bernie Sanders Turned Himself into a Serious Contender
Mother Jones: Here's How Bernie May Be Changing Politics for Good
Washington Post: Sanders Prepares for His National Debate Debut
New York Times: Setting Bernie Sanders Apart from the Debate Field
Mother Jones: Here's What Bernie Sanders is like as a Debater
CNN Video: What is Bernie Sanders' Debate Style?
ABC: What to Expect from Bernie Sanders in Tuesday's Debate
International Business Times: Bernie Sanders' Debate Plan
Washington Post: A Somewhat Reluctant Socialist

Bernie Sanders' election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981 caught the attention of the entire nation and inspired progressives throughout the world. Originally published in 1989, just before Sanders won his first race for the US House of Representatives in 1990, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution was the first comprehensive analysis of Sanders' mayoral years and the progressive movement in Vermont. It remains the most intimate and revealing. 

Greg Guma's exploration of the "revolution" goes far beyond Sanders and his impact on Burlington. The factors behind the initial surprise victory, the tension between leftist ideals and pragmatic politics, the evolution of an effective political coaliton outside the two-party system -- all these topics and more Guma investigates, with an eye on global political implications as well as the immediate local impact. The People's Republic is for all those interested in progressive politics and political history, not to mention those in places where a similar "revolution" is possible.

A fast-moving description that illustrates one of the great efforts at innovative government of the past fifty years…
--Pierre Clavel, Cornell University

If you were going to create somebody to write about Bernie Sanders’ years as socialist mayor of Burlington, you might make him a fortysomething Vermont journalist and bookstore founder and former government worker who almost ran for mayor of Burlington himself…That’s what you have in Greg Guma.
—Mark Satin, New Options

A treasure house of first-hand information and perceptive, if often controversial analysis of great value to anyone concerned to explore realistically the possibilities for combining third-party electoral politics with other methods of working for justice, peace, environmental sanity and genuine democracy.
– David Dellinger, author/activist

If you are at all interested in Vermont and Burlington, and public policy, get this book.
– Phil Hoff, former Vermont Governor

More Books from Maverick Media HERE 

Uneasy Empire
How an international establishment has used fear of socialism, communism and terrorism to justify repression and a massive military establishment. Pointing past nationalism and corporate empire, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do combines a radical critique with hopeful solutions and a vision of democratic globalism through which people can regain control of their futures.

Spirits of Desire
Set during the spirtualist craze of the 1870s, Spirits of Desire follows a group of extraordinary people, including Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky, paranormal investigator Henry Olcott and Oneida Community leader Theo Noyes, as they search for the truth about ghosts through a notorious family of Vermont mediums. The trail leads them into a world of seances, deadly elementals, astral forces and past lives.

Dons of Time
Unsolved mysteries collide with cutting edge science and altered states of consciousness in a world of corporate gangsters, infamous crimes and top-secret experiments. Based on eyewitness accounts, suppressed documents and the lives of world-changers Nikola Tesla, Annie Besant, Ignatius Donnelly and Jack the Ripper, Dons of Time is a speculative adventure, a glimpse of an alternative future and a quantum leap to Gilded Age London at the tipping point of invention, revolution and murder.