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Tuesday, 22 September 2020 19:21

In 2020, the NYT still appears to be a little confused about encryption

In 2020, the NYT still appears to be a little confused about encryption Pixabay

With less than six weeks to go for the US presidential election, it is not surprising that the American media is full of tales about Russian hacking, election interference and likely scenarios where some foreign country meddles in the contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

That's probably why what should have been a bread-and-butter tale, about an Iranian digital campaign targeting dissidents and expatriates, was turned into an alarming story about Iranian hackers finding their way into encrypted apps by The New York Times.

The app in question is Telegram. It is not an encrypted app, it provides encrypted end-to-end messaging. At both endpoints, the devices belonging to the sender and the recipient, the messages are in plain text. The NYT cited two reports as its sources: one, from the Israeli security firm Check Point and other from a Middle Eastern human rights group Miaan. Both these sources present very sober tales; I can speak with confidence, having read them both.

The NYT's first paragraph set the standard for spreading FUD: "Iranian hackers, most likely employees or affiliates of the government, have been running a vast cyberespionage operation equipped with surveillance tools that can outsmart encrypted messaging systems — a capability Iran was not previously known to possess, according to two digital security reports."

And then there was the "we had access in advance" line: "The reports... were reviewed by The New York Times in advance of their release...", as though they would say something different after they were released.

Neither report said anything like this. First, the surveillance tools cited were the garden variety. Check Point listed four variants of Windows infostealers intended to steal the victim’s personal documents as well as access to their Telegram Desktop and KeePass account information; an Android backdoor that extracts two-factor authentication codes from SMS messages, records the phone’s voice surroundings and more; and Telegram phishing pages, distributed using fake Telegram service accounts.

nyt iran

Some of the news that's unfit to print in the so-called American newspaper of record.

There was nothing at all about breaking encryption, simply because there was no need to do so. After gaining entry to a mobile phone, all that one had to do was to hack into Telegram and all the messages would be available to read.

The group Miaan also listed nothing alarming, just claims of using malware and phishing attempts to steal data, passwords and personal information. But then NYT reporters do tend to get a bit excited when they are told about the "cybers". This is not the first time that I have noted this.

The two authors, NYT staffer Ronen Bergman and freelancer Farnaz Fassihi, threw in a bit of masala here and there to spice things up.

There was this little bit: "...the hackers have successfully infiltrated what were thought to be secure mobile phones and computers belonging to the targets, overcoming obstacles created by encrypted applications such as Telegram and, according to Miaan, even gaining access to information on WhatsApp."

Really? A secure mobile phone? Where can one find such a device? One is living in an era when an iPhone can be hacked with ease, so where is the security on an Android phone?

How secure is WhatsApp? Not much more than Telegram. But then the Western media has created a myth that Telegram is not kosher because it originates from Russia. WhatsApp is an American app, so it just has to be better.

Both apps offer end-to-end encrypted messaging. But anyone who steals your phone can access your messages by just opening the apps on the phone. Both Bergman and Fassihi appear to be confused between an encrypted app and encrypted messaging. This, in the publication that claims to publish all the news that's fit to read.

And when one comes to Windows, one cannot even mention the word security. One can only talk about Swiss cheese, given the multitude of holes this operating system has. Microsoft used to be referred to as the Typhoid Mary of the Internet some years ago.

One can get an idea of exactly how mundane the tale is by reading the version crafted by long-time security reporter Dan Goodin who works for Ars Technica. Not a lot of excitement in his story, no gory tales of super cyber abilities or the like. But then Goodin knows what he is writing about.

The NYT then drew a line from these activities to the election. Wrote Bergman and Fassihi: "The reports suggest significant advances in the competency of Iranian intelligence hackers. And they come amid warnings from Washington that Iran is using cybersabotage to try to influence American elections. Federal prosecutors on Wednesday identified two Iranian individuals they said had hacked into American computers and stolen data on behalf of Iran’s government and for financial gain."

One thing I have to grant these two journalists: they have invented a new word, cybersabotage. But there is some disconnect when talking about US warnings of Iran poking its nose into the election process in one sentence and then saying in the very next one that two Iranians were stealing data for Teheran's government and for financial gain. Which is it? Are they common thieves or political bandits?

I just find it extremely surprising that in 2020, reporters still do not understand that hype does not pay. Crying wolf is a waste of time, especially when the countries one is crying wolf about happen to just coincidentally be on Washington's enemies of the month list.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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