TBR News February 22, 2015

Feb 22 2015

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. February 19, 2015:”Obama has turned out to be a really lame-duck president. He makes a good deal of pious noise but no one listens to him. He went after Putin, threatening him with sanctions and promising to sic NATO on him but the tables have turned and it looks very much like Putin will win out, gain most of eastern Ukraine and keep the oil rich Crimea. And Our Faithful Ally, Israel, has lost most of her influence in the United States and Bibi has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Remarkably like American Congressmen. The horrors of Saudi-created ISIS are causing world-wide fury aimed at Muslims and the Jews are in a turmoil over escalating Muslim terrorist attacks against them in Europe. When these move to the United States, wont the loony bloggers have a wonderful time.”


Binyamin Netanyahu faces damning expenses accusations ahead of elections

Report into spending by Israeli prime minister accuses him of improper use of public funds, including criticising spending on takeaway meals and cleaning

February 17, 2015

by Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem

The Guardian

          A damning official report into spending by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, at his official residence in Jerusalem and private seaside home has accused him of excessive and improper use of public funds, including spending huge amounts on takeaway food, hairdressing and cleaning..

Prepared by Israel’s state comptroller, Yosef Shapira – and passed to the country’s attorney general to consider whether any laws have been broken – the report is potentially highly damaging to Netanyahu, coming only a month before Israel’s elections.

The government auditor’s report appears to confirm allegations that have been rumbling for several years of excessive spending by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, and a lack of proper management of the costs in the prime minister’s official home.

It has come on top of lurid allegations, detailed in a civil court case, of the high-handed and abusive treatment of staff in the official residence by Sara – claims strongly denied by the Netanyahus.

What has made the issue potentially politically toxic in the middle of an election campaign – where Netanyahu is running neck and neck with his main rivals – is the sharp contrast it has afforded to Israelis suffering under a high cost of living.

The claims of potential illegal conduct centre on two issues: the so called “bottle-gate affair”, which saw Sara Netanyahu pocket deposits on bottles of drinks paid for by the state, later reimbursed; and claims that garden furniture bought for the official residence was sent to their private home.

Among spending items criticised in the report is a bill to the Israeli state for more than $18,000 (£11,700) for takeaway meals in a single year, despite the fact that the Netanyahus are provided with a cook and staff at the government’s expense.

Another expenditure highlighted was the cost of cleaning for Netanyahu’s private home in the upmarket beach resort of Caesarea. It cost the Israeli state $2,120 a month – more than the monthly income of many Israelis – despite the fact that the Netanyahus spend the majority of their time at the official residence in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu was also criticised for excessive spending on a raft of other items including hairdressing, clothes, water consumption and electrical repairs made at the taxpayer’s expense at his private home.

The official examination of the expenses – incurred between 2009-13 – showed that cleaning costs claimed at the Netanyahus’ two residences doubled without explanation from an already hefty $138,000 in 2009 at the official residence alone.

Perhaps most damaging of all is the revelation that employees of the prime minister’s office were obliged to pay for some of Netanyahu’s personal expenses out of their own pockets – often small sums and not reimbursed.

“The meaning of a failure to pay back these invoices from petty cash is that employees absorb the cost of private expenditures of the prime minister or his family,” the comptroller wrote in his report. “When an employee is forced to pay from his own pocket for an expenditure by the prime minister, this is improper administration and it makes no difference whether the sum is large or small.”

In a scathing assessment, Shapira concluded: “The way in which the budget of the prime minister’s residence was managed during the years 2009 until 2012 does not comply with the basic principles of money management, saving and efficiency and is likely to result in a waste of public funds.”

One of the murkier episodes detailed in the report relates to the employment of an electrician who was a member of Netanyahu’s own Likud party, and who, because of that, was not authorised to do state-funded work at their private home.

The report noted that nobody examined the need for the work – which continued for three months – and there was no examination of whether the work was actually performed, as everything was coordinated between Sara Netanyahu or one of her staff.

Replying to the report’s findings, Netanyahu’s party issued a statement saying that while Netanyahu respected “the findings … in relation to all the matters which were investigated … there is absolutely no indication of any assault on the public’s integrity and certainly no indication of any criminal transgressions.”

The statement added: “A large portion of the recommendations in the report were implemented even prior to its release. The prime minister has issued a directive to implement the remaining recommendations in the best and most effective manner possible.”

Discussion of the lifestyle enjoyed by the Netanyahus has become one of the longest-running soap operas in Israeli media and politics, both taking a star turn in the court cases brought by former staff – who have complained of Sara Netanyahu’s alleged abusive behaviour and tantrums.

Condemned as “evil gossip” by the couple, the saga has prompted thinly veiled comparisons over the last year between Sara and Marie Antoinette and arch digs at the imperial pretensions of Bibi, as the prime minister is nicknamed.

The controversy has been exacerbated by the Netanyahus’ own efforts in recent days to pre-empt the report.

Those efforts saw them invite television celebrity interior designer Moshik Galamin (a friend of the couple) to inspect their official residence on the eve of the report’s publication, with Galamin videoed as he was shown round by Sara. The tour was then posted on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

The video purports to depict run-down furnishings, peeling paint and a grotty kitchen, which Galamin declares looks “like the kitchen of a Romanian orphanage from 1954”.

“The moment you come here at night, you’ll catch the prime minister on this chair snacking on all sorts of forbidden things, like a sandwich or yellow cheese,” Sara tells the designer, in what appears to be an attempt to reinforce an image of him as an ordinary guy. “The dish we like best is schnitzel and mashed potatoes and pasta!”

The problem – as the reports in Israel’s media have extensively charged – is that the video appears to have been disingenuous at the very least.

The kitchen featured in Galamin’s video, say critics, is the general kitchen of the residence where employees take their meals, apparently infrequently used by the prime minister.

The Netanyahus’ own kitchen – not shown in the video but later displayed on Israeli television – is reportedly a newly renovated affair located on another floor.

The Labour MP Shelly Yachimovich, who has in the past called on Israel’s media to leave off Sara Netanyahu, was scathing ahead of publication.

Describing the video as “pathetic” and “ridiculous”, she accused Netanyahu of “cowardice” for putting his wife forward to deflect the heat. “He passed responsibility to his wife … He put her in centre-stage saying: ‘I’m off to work, Sara will show you the house, that’s her kingdom.’ Beyond the chauvinistic aspect, this was done with the next day’s state comptroller’s report in mind, to create the alibi of ‘it’s not me, it’s her’.”

“Ultimately,” she added, “we look [to] our leaders, we want them to lead their people, not live like emperors, disconnected completely from the lives of ordinary people.”


German TV channel under fire over fake ‘Russian tanks in Ukraine’ footage

February 19, 2015


A citizen’s media group has lodged a complaint against German television channel ZDF for airing a photograph of Russian tanks in eastern Ukraine, which in reality were Russian tanks on patrol in South Ossetia in 2008.

Just days after a US politician presented on the Senate floor falsified images of Russian tanks purported to be taken in eastern Ukraine, one of Germany’s largest broadcasters appears guilty of the very same error.

The German media watchdog group, known as the Permanent Open Committee of Media Monitoring, has issued a complaint against federal channel Zweiten Deutschen Fernsehens (ZDF) over false reporting on the situation in eastern Ukraine, Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten has reported.

The complaint involves a photograph that purports to show Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine, a claim that Moscow has denied on numerous occasions.

The news segment aired by ZDF featured a photo with the caption “Russian armored vehicles moved through Isvarino in the Lugansk region, February 12, 2015,” citing “Ukrainian army spokesman Andrei Lysenko.” However, there is one glaring problem with the photograph in question: it shows Russian tanks in South Ossetia, not Ukraine.

The media watchdog determined that the photograph, which RT believes is dated from the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict in South Ossetia, was already used in a Korean blog posting from 2009.

Meanwhile, the timing of the erroneous news segment – on the very same day the leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine were meeting in Minsk in an effort to broker a Ukrainian ceasefire – could not have been less propitious.

In their complaint, the Open Committee states that “it would be interesting to know why such an image, which has nothing to do with the news in question, is being repeated, meant as it is to convince a third party of the truthfulness of assumptions about an “invasion by [Russian] armor.”

Maren Mueller, a founding member of the Open Committee, says that a lot of German coverage of events in eastern Ukraine “has reached the height of fantasy, and is not worth taking seriously.”

More specifically, Mueller points to the “dangerous closeness” that exists between the media’s reporting and the storyline of the conflict being provided by government officials.

This is not the first time, however, that public officials have been caught passing off false information in what appears to be a desperate attempt to prove Russian participation in Ukraine.

On February 11, high-ranking US Senator Jim Inhofe presented to members of Congress what he said were photos of Russian tanks operating in eastern Ukraine.

“Putin keeps saying ‘we don’t have any Russians in there with the separatists, it’s not us, we’re not doing it.’ Look, here they are. These are the pictures we brought back with us.” After showing the photographs, which turned out to be images from Russia’s 2008 conflict with Georgia, Inhofe presented grisly photos of dead Ukrainian civilians.

Inhofe said the things that are happening in Ukraine are just as bad as what happening “in ISIS, in Syria, and other places.”

The same day Inhofe was forced to retract his allegations and issue an apology.

“[T]he Ukrainian parliament members who gave us these photos in print form as if it came directly from a camera really did themselves a disservice,” Inhofe said in a statement. “We felt confident to release these photos because the images match the reporting of what is going on in the region. I was furious to learn one of the photos provided now appears to be falsified from an AP photo taken in 2008.”

Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defense has branded the latest batch of photographs, this time from the US ambassador to Ukraine, purporting to show Russian forces in Ukraine, as “crystal ball gazing.”

On Saturday, the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, posted on Twitter what he claims are satellite photos of Russian artillery systems stationed near the town of Lomuvatka, about 20 kilometers northeast of Debaltsevo.

 “We have failed to understand how those grainy dark patches in the photos published by US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt on his Twitter feed could prove anything,” Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, told journalists later in the day.

“Unlike the American intelligence services, Russia’s military [has] never considered crystal ball gazing a good way to check and confirm data.”


Russian resurgence: how the Kremlin is making its presence felt across Europe

Moscow is influencing policy and shaping opinion all over the continent, with ties to both the far right and the hard left

February 16, 2015

by Ian Traynor in Paks, Hungary, and Shaun Walker in Moscow

The Guardian

           Coming off the early shift at Hungary’s sole nuclear power station, on the Danube south of Budapest, Jozsef, a 30-year-old turbine engineer, is grateful to have a relatively secure job that pays considerably more than the national average.

Hungarians have never been big fans of the Russians. But Jozsef knows whom he has to thank for his job security – Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who is making a rare visit to an EU country with a trip to Budapest on Tuesday.

Russia sealed a deal last year with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to build reactors at the Paks power plant in return for €10bn (£7.4bn) in tied credits. Orbán has been one of Putin’s most consistent supporters within EU circles.

But it is not only in Hungary that the Russians are back. All over Europe, and particularly in central and southern Europe, the Kremlin is making inroads at a time when relations between Russia and the west are at their most tense and brittle in the post-communist era.

Russia is actively projecting its influences in the Balkans, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, and has been noticeably cultivating ties with parties on the left and right further west in Europe.

In Hungary, there were no tenders nor a bidding war for the nuclear project, no public debate. Hungarians first learned of the news from Russian websites. “I only know what I see on television. I don’t know how the deal was done,” Jozsef shrugs.

“I did not know about it,” admits Attila Azódi, the Hungarian energy commissioner and a professor of nuclear engineering. “There were definitely reasons for that, if you look at the international situation. You have to ask the prime minister to understand the details.”

The Russians already supply 80% of Hungary’s natural gas. If things go to plan at Paks, in a little more than a decade Russian technology and expertise will also be supplying 56% of Hungary’s electricity.

Orbán appears entirely comfortable with that dependency. He is the leader of a country in the EU and Nato, but voices only contempt for western “liberal democracy” and holds up Putin as a leader to be admired and imitated.

When John McCain, the US senator, challenged him last year on his pro-Moscow leanings, Orbán, said a source who witnessed the exchange, replied: “I don’t care what you think. You don’t matter. Russia matters because of energy. Germany matters because of jobs.”

In Budapest, the Putin-Orbán bonding will be reinforced in what is only the Russian leader’s second state visit to an EU country since the Ukraine conflict broke out a year ago. The first was last year to Austria, where he was also sympathetically received by a government stridently opposed to EU sanctions on Russia.

If Ukraine has turned into the battleground between east and west, Budapest often feels like the conflict’s playground. Websites and social media hum with Russian propaganda, conspiracy theories and paranoia. The neo-fascist Jobbik party, second biggest in parliament, is avowedly and loudly pro-Russia, its most senior member in the European parliament accused of being a Russian agent.

“It’s surprising how open the Russian influence is,” said Péter Krekó, a Hungarian analyst at the Political Capital consultancy. “It’s not hidden. We are exposed. The Russians are making complete fools of us. Orbán has become a puppet of Putin. He thinks he can play east against west.”

Moscow’s influence extends far beyond Hungary. The Putin regime is bankrolling France’s National Front on the far right. On the hard left, it has close ties to the new Greek government of Alexis Tsipras whose leftwing foreign minister has said Greece could be Russia’s “military and economic ally”.

In Serbia and Bosnia, Russian politicians, military, and energy lobbies are said to be calling the shots, influencing policy, and disrupting both countries’ hopes of joining the EU.

Senior European and American diplomats and officials are also convinced, without supplying hard evidence, that the Russians have infiltrated, or are helping to fund, NGOs campaigning in Europe against fracking and the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and the US, and that they have also been quietly encouraging the Scottish and Catalan secessionist movements in Britain and Spain.

The talk among policymakers in European capitals struggling to counter what they see as the slick Kremlin operations aimed at dividing and enfeebling Europe is of “Putin’s useful idiots”.

Through its skilled and lavishly funded television, propaganda and social media operations, the Kremlin is influencing the arguments over Ukraine, often winning over European public opinion.

“It’s beyond irony,” said a senior figure in the European commission in Brussels. “You can hear Putin say he had to act in Ukraine to stop fascism, while he’s financing fascists right, left, and centre all over Europe. We’re naive in the west.”

Another commission official dealing directly with Russia said: “These developments are part of an overall strategy going way beyond the conflict in Ukraine. The nationalist rhetoric has been developing in Russia for years. In helping the far right, the aim is to undermine our values and fundamentals. It’s very worrying.”

In cultivating the far right and the hard left in Europe – between them they now control more than a quarter of the European parliament – Kremlin strategists are activating a policy that is at least a decade old, say Russian experts.

“Links between Russian nationalists and the European far right go back to the 1990s,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic who researches far-right movements, citing Russian figures such as the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky or the neo-fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin. “The major difference is that in the 90s the cooperation was done by individuals and groups, and they did not really think the state would benefit.”

The Russian state became interested in cooperation with the European far right as early as 2004, he added. Elections in Kremlin-backed breakaway states such as Abkhazia or Transnistria, in Georgia and Moldova respectively, would be observed and validated by far-right politicians from the EU.

There was an ideological component to the partnership, given the increasing social conservatism of the Russian elite – homophobia, anti-immigration, opposition to the EU, anti-Americanism.

Konstantin Malofeev, a wealthy Russian oligarch, Putin-backer and extreme nationalist who has said Ukraine is an artificial creation, appears to be a central figure in the funding and wooing of Russian support in Europe.

He funded and attended a lavish event in a Habsburg palais in Vienna last year for leaders of the European far right, ostensibly devoted to marking 200 years since the alliance between the Russian tsar, the Austro-Hungarian emperor and the king of Prussia following Napoleon’s defeat.

Malofeev has been blacklisted by the EU for his role in Ukraine – he helped finance and supply the pro-Russia insurgency, some of whose leaders were his former employees – and cannot now travel to Europe. As he could not attend a wedding in Greece thrown by an oligarch friend, he invited the entire party of 90 to his estate south of Moscow in October. The attendees included Panos Kammenos, the new Greek defence minister and leader of the nationalist Anel party – Tsipras’s junior coalition partner.

The wedding details emerged from a batch of 700 emails of a diplomat at the Russian embassy in Athens, hacked in December and revealed recently in the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit. The emails reveal Russian diplomatic contacts with Greek and Italian neo-fascists.

They also show Nikos Kotzias, the new Greek foreign minister, corresponding with Dugin, a key Putin ideologue and extreme nationalist. Kotzias started his job as foreign minister a fortnight ago, questioning the latest round of EU sanctions against Russia.

Previously, as a politics professor at Piraeus University, Kotzias organised several studies and polls on Greek attitudes to Russia. He concluded that many Greeks were disenchanted with their western allies and inclined to favour Russia. “For Greeks, Russia is a potential military and economic ally whom they respect and seem to know relatively well,” he wrote, according to the hacked emails.

Alexander Lebedev, the Russian businessman who owns the Evening Standard and the Independent, says it is not always clear whether wealthy Russian ideologues cultivating politicians in Europe are acting on direct Kremlin orders or just currying favour with the

“You can never tell whether they are trying to read the mind of their bosses in advance or whether they have been told what to do,” he said.

But a €9m loan to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France from the Russians – disclosed a couple of months ago – could only come with strings attached, said Lebedev.

“What is the point of giving such a loan? The only way the party can repay the loan is by doing something politically.”

A Putin ally and MP from his United Russia party delivered a speech to a congress of the National Front in Lyon in November, in which he claimed Russia better understood the European people. “The will of the people of European countries is being subsumed by the will of a few little-known officials from the EU who in reality are simply American puppets,” declared Andrei Isayev.

“In Russia, we think that democracy should respect the rights of the minority, but should mainly be about the will of the majority, which is based on traditional values. I am certain that in Europe, the vast majority of people would agree.”

Le Pen would agree – as may Nigel Farage, of Ukip, who has voiced his admiration for Putin. But at present Orbán matters more because he heads a strong government with an unassailable two-thirds parliamentary majority and no opposition to worry about.

In the past year, he has purged around 200 diplomats from the Hungarian foreign ministry. Those remaining, say disgruntled former officials in Budapest, have been asked to detail the timings and contents of past contacts with US diplomats.

“Now, like in the old days, it’s an advantage for a Hungarian diplomat to have studied in Moscow,” said Krekó.

“It is clear that Russia is providing support for all these political parties all over central and eastern Europe,” said Tamás Lattmann, a law professor at Budapest’s National University of Public Service. “This is a very serious problem because when they get a certain amount of presence, if nothing else, then they can at least block, for example, the sanctions against Russia.”

Alone among western leaders, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has warned recently that in his drive to divide and weaken the EU from within, Putin is also targeting aspiring EU members in the Balkans.

Twenty years after the Bosnian war ended, the Russians for the first time abstained in November on a UN vote extending the EU peacekeeping mission in Sarajevo.

Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political analyst, told Radio Free Europe: “I do not mean military intervention, there are not going to be little green men in the Balkans. But in his attempt to disunite Europe, I believe that Putin can very well instrumentalise the lack of political stability and economic prosperity … they see the Balkans as a place where they can use their power to disrupt.”

As Putin goes to Budapest for what has become a rare experience – being welcomed by a friendly EU government – the turbine engineer in Paks is aware of the contradiction, but is not bothered by it.

“Hungarians are prejudiced against the Russians,” said Jozsef. “But people are happy about the Russians being back here.”


Additional reporting: Kim Willsher in Paris and Daniel Nolan in Budapest




States Consider Increasing Taxes for the Poor and Cutting Them for the Affluent

February. 13, 2015

by Shaila Dewan

New York Times

            A number of Republican-led states are considering tax changes that in many cases would have the effect of cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor.

Conservatives are known for hating taxes but particularly hate income taxes, which they say have a greater dampening effect on growth. Of the 10 or so Republican governors who have proposed tax increases, nearly all have called for increases in consumption taxes, which hit the poor and middle class harder than the rich.

Favorite targets for the new taxes include gas, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general. Gov. Paul R. LePage of Maine, who wants to start taxing movie tickets and haircuts, is also proposing a tax break for the lowest-income families to relieve some of the pressure.

At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina and John R. Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. They say that tax policies that encourage business growth provide more jobs and economic benefits for everyone.

A new report suggests that these states could be creating financial problems down the road. The strategy of shifting from income taxes to consumption taxes has caused huge budget shortfalls in Kansas and, more recently, North Carolina, which announced a budget shortfall of nearly half a billion dollars.

One reason, according to the report from the Keystone Research Center and Good Jobs First, two left-leaning think tanks, is that just as the tax burden has shifted away from the wealthy, the wealthy have received a huge share of income growth in recent years.

 While the bottom fifth of earners pay more than 10 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the top 1 percent pays closer to 5 percent, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates. Percentage of income is, of course, only one way to measure the tax burden — in sheer dollar terms, the wealthy pay far more than the poor. Still, the Keystone report’s authors, Greg LeRoy and Stephen Herzenberg, argue that a less regressive tax code is the answer to state budget woes, in what is basically a sophisticated pitch for a millionaire’s tax. “It’s time to have a clear debate about the impact of inequality on public finance,” Mr. LeRoy said.

Taxing the top fifth of earners at the same rate as the middle class would bring in $128 billion to state and local coffers, the report says. Taxing just the top 1 percent at the same rate as the middle class would bring in $68 billion, almost 10 times the amount needed to restore five years’ worth of cuts to higher education. The report also breaks it down state by state, saying that Texas and Florida, at the top of the list, would raise about $20 billion each if they taxed the top 20 percent at the middle-class rate, while North Carolina would raise about $2.2 billion and Kansas $1.3 billion.

“We wanted to connect the dots for people,” said Mr. Herzenberg, an economist at Keystone. “If more money’s flowing to the top, and the top folks are taxed at lower rates, inevitably that’s a problem for state budgets.”


NSA hid spying software in hard drive firmware, report says

Government, military in Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan targeted

February 16, 2015

CDC News/Reuters

The U.S. National Security Agency has figured out how to hide spying software deep within hard drives made by Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba and other top manufacturers, giving the agency the means to eavesdrop on the majority of the world’s computers, according to cyber researchers and former operatives.

That long-sought and closely guarded ability was part of a cluster of spying programs discovered by Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based security software maker that has exposed a series of Western cyberespionage operations.

Kaspersky said it found personal computers in 30 countries infected with one or more of the spying programs, with the most infections seen in Iran, followed by Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mali, Syria, Yemen and Algeria. The targets included government and military institutions, telecommunication companies, banks, energy companies, nuclear researchers, media, and Islamic activists, Kaspersky said.

The firm declined to publicly name the country behind the spying campaign, but said it was closely linked to Stuxnet, the NSA-led cyberweapon that was used to attack Iran’s uranium enrichment facility. The NSA is the agency responsible for gathering electronic intelligence on behalf of the United States.

A former NSA employee told Reuters that Kaspersky’s analysis was correct, and that people still in the intelligence agency valued these spying programs as highly as Stuxnet. Another former intelligence operative confirmed that the NSA had developed the prized technique of concealing spyware in hard drives, but said he did not know which spy efforts relied on it.

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines declined to comment.

Kaspersky published the technical details of its research on Monday, which should help infected institutions detect the spying programs, some of which trace back as far as 2001.

The disclosure could further hurt the NSA’s surveillance abilities, already damaged by massive leaks by former contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations have hurt the United States’ relations with some allies and slowed the sales of U.S. technology products abroad.

The exposure of these new spying tools could lead to greater backlash against Western technology, particularly in countries such as China, which is already drafting regulations that would require most bank technology suppliers to proffer copies of their software code for inspection.

Technological breakthrough

According to Kaspersky, the spies made a technological breakthrough by figuring out how to lodge malicious software in the obscure code called firmware that launches every time a computer is turned on.

Disk drive firmware is viewed by spies and cybersecurity experts as the second-most valuable real estate on a PC for a hacker, second only to the BIOS code invoked automatically as a computer boots up.

“The hardware will be able to infect the computer over and over,” lead Kaspersky researcher Costin Raiu said in an interview.

Though the leaders of the still-active espionage campaign could have taken control of thousands of PCs, giving them the ability to steal files or eavesdrop on anything they wanted, the spies were selective and only established full remote control over machines belonging to the most desirable foreign targets, according to Raiu. He said Kaspersky found only a few especially high-value computers with the hard-drive infections.

Kaspersky’s reconstructions of the spying programs show that they could work in disk drives sold by more than a dozen companies, comprising essentially the entire market. They include Western Digital Corp, Seagate Technology Plc , Toshiba Corp, IBM, Micron Technology Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.

Western Digital, Seagate and Micron said they had no knowledge of these spying programs. Toshiba and Samsung declined to comment. IBM did not respond to requests for comment.

Access to proprietary source code

Raiu said the authors of the spying programs must have had access to the proprietary source code that directs the actions of the hard drives. That code can serve as a roadmap to vulnerabilities, allowing those who study it to launch attacks much more easily.

“There is zero chance that someone could rewrite the [hard drive] operating system using public information,” Raiu said.

Concerns about access to source code flared after a series of high-profile cyberattacks on Google Inc and other U.S. companies in 2009 that were blamed on China. Investigators have said they found evidence that the hackers gained access to source code from several big U.S. tech and defense companies.

It is not clear how the NSA may have obtained the hard drives’ source code. Western Digital spokesman Steve Shattuck said the company “has not provided its source code to government agencies.” The other hard drive makers would not say if they had shared their source code with the NSA.

Seagate spokesman Clive Over said it has “secure measures to prevent tampering or reverse engineering of its firmware and other technologies.” Micron spokesman Daniel Francisco said the company took the security of its products seriously and “we are not aware of any instances of foreign code.”

According to former intelligence operatives, the NSA has multiple ways of obtaining source code from tech companies, including asking directly and posing as a software developer. If a company wants to sell products to the Pentagon or another sensitive U.S. agency, the government can request a security audit to make sure the source code is safe.

“They don’t admit it, but they do say, ‘We’re going to do an evaluation, we need the source code,'” said Vincent Liu, a partner at security consulting firm Bishop Fox and former NSA analyst. “It’s usually the NSA doing the evaluation, and it’s a pretty small leap to say they’re going to keep that source code.”

Kaspersky called the authors of the spying program “the Equation group,” named after their embrace of complex encryption formulas.

The group used a variety of means to spread other spying programs, such as by compromising jihadist websites, infecting USB sticks and CDs, and developing a self-spreading computer worm called Fanny, Kasperky said.

Fanny was like Stuxnet in that it exploited two of the same undisclosed software flaws, known as “zero days,” which strongly suggested collaboration by the authors, Raiu said. He added that it was “quite possible” that the Equation group used Fanny to scout out targets for Stuxnet in Iran and spread the virus.


Copenhagen attacks raise fears of antisemitism around Europe

Speculation that shootings were inspired by Charlie Hebdo attacks after Danish-born suspect is shot dead

February 16. 2015

by Angelique Chrisafis in Copenhagen and Nadia Khomami in London

The Guardian

          Senior rabbis and Jewish politicians have warned of rising fears of antisemitism across Europe after the weekend’s terrorist attacks on a free-speech debate and a synagogue in Copenhagen.

As police investigated whether a 22-year-old Danish-born gunman they shot dead had acted alone in staging Denmark’s most lethal terrorist attack in decades, which killed a film director and a young Jewish man and left five police officers injured, the European Jewish Association called for increased security.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the association’s general director, said EU leaders had not done enough to combat antisemitic attacks and prejudices in the lead-up to the attacks on Saturday and in the early hours of Sunday, and pointed to a need to “secure all Jewish institutions 24/7”. Rabbi Barry Marcus, of the Central Synagogue in London, said the events of Copenhagen “were not a kind of abberation, there’s a pattern”.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, sparked controversy by immediately calling for European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “This wave of attacks will continue. Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” he said, echoing comments he made at the time of the Paris attacks.

In Denmark, the spy chief, Jens Madsen, said the gunman, who was known to police because of past violence, gang-related activities and possession of weapons, had perhaps been trying to stage a copycat attack of the three days of bloody mayhem in Paris last month which began with a massacre of cartoonists and others at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and ended in a murderous siege at a kosher supermarket.

“We cannot yet say anything concrete about the motive … but are considering that he might have been inspired by the events in Paris some weeks ago,” Madsen said of the Danish gunman who was shot dead by officers after an altercation as he returned to a working-class neighbourhood in Copenhagen on Sunday morning.

Local media named the Danish-born suspect as Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, reporting that he was released from prison a few weeks ago after serving a sentence for knife crime. Police did not confirm the name.

The attacks sparked condemnation across the world with France’s president François Hollande warning that the “same targets” – symbols of freedom of speech, Jews and police – were hit in Copenhagen and Paris.

The European Jewish Association called for increased protection of Jewish institutions across Europe.

Denmark’s centre-left Social Democrat prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, described the killings as “a cynical act of terror”.

She said: “We have tried the ugly taste of fear and powerlessness which terror hopes to create,” and added that Denmark was living a day of sorrow. “We will defend our democracy and we will defend Denmark at any time,” she vowed.

The mood in Denmark and its capital city of less than 1 million people was one of shock, sadness and confusion as the police operation continued. Since the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten first published cartoons by various artists depicting Muhammad in 2005, provoking protests across the Muslim world in which at least 50 people died, cartoonists have received death threats and police protection and authorities in Denmark have spoken of foiling planned attacks in recent years.

But the reality of the weekend’s attacks and a normally peaceful city which prided itself on tolerance swiftly seeing itself saturated with armed police shocked many.

“We hear about attacks in Paris or London, but we’re still struggling to think that it could happen here in our little fairytale country,” said Birgitte Krogh, a primary school teacher who had joined crowds in central Copenhagen to remember the dead and was wondering what she was going to tell her eight-year-old pupils in school on Monday. “It’s not that we never thought it could happen … but we’re used to being safe here.”

Many in the crowd defended the Danish tradition of freedom of speech while also saying it was important to respect minorities and not fall into provocation. Some feared a rise in political extremism, namely the far-right Danish People’s party, which had seen high scores in last year’s European election.

The first attack came at 4pm on Saturday afternoon when the windows of a cafe in a smart area of eastern Copenhagen were riddled with automatic weapon fire during a debate about freedom of speech attended by, among others, the French ambassador discussing Charlie Hebdo, and Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who depicted Muhammad in a cartoon as a dog in 2007 and whose life has been under threat ever since.

The gunman fled the scene, but at around 1am he struck again outside the city’s synagogue on a narrow street in the heart of Copenhagen, shooting dead Dan Uzan, 37, a Jewish security guard who was manning the door of a bat mitvah party.

At dawn, the suspected gunman was killed in a shootout on a quiet street in the traditionally working-class area of north-west Copenhagen, bordering the Nørrebro district.

The graffiti-tagged streets of red-brick blocks and low-rise social housing mark the most densely populated area of Denmark – a mixed neighbourhood where immigrants from countries like Turkey, Pakistan and Somalia mix with young Danish students, and whose streets are slowly becoming more gentrified as young people are priced out of the centre of the city.

Some locals spoke of drug and gang crime, petty criminals “beggars and junkies” and unemployment, what one local termed a “rough neighbourhood”. But many said they enjoyed the cultural mix where people had long lived harmoniously together.

During the afternoon police continued to search apartments and raided an internet cafe nearby as part of their investigation, taking away two people in handcuffs.

By mid-afternoon hundreds of Copenhagen residents began gathering with candles and flowers outside the city’s synagogue in support of the Jewish population.

Jonatan Sousa, an economist at Copenhagen city hall and member of the Jewish community, described how the gunman struck just as a local family had been celebrating a bat mitzvah and the man killed was a friend who had been monitoring the door.

“At the synagogue the morning before her party, the girl whose bat mitzvah it was had given a very moving speech about peace in the world, and to think her party ended the way it did,” Sousa said.

“We all knew each other, it’s a very small Jewish community in Copenhagen, maybe 5,000 to 7,000 people. We knew it could happen, when we heard of the shooting at the debate we thought the Jews could be next. But the reality of it has left the Jewish community deeply shocked, deeply sad. The fact that right now all the Danish people are here and behind us, we’re all grateful for that.”



Siberian Express” Cold Snap Turns Deadly

February 17, 2015

by Tom Niziol (@TomNiziol)

The Weather Channel

           Hundreds of daily record lows and at least three all-time record lows were set as a frigid air mass with a connection to Siberia gripped the central and eastern United States with dangerously cold conditions. Friday morning brought the most widespread and intense cold of the winter to many areas, sending temperatures into the 30s below zero as far south as Kentucky.

Lynchburg, Virginia, plummeted to 11 below zero Friday morning (Feb. 20), setting a new all-time record low for any day of the year. The previous record was 10 below zero on Jan. 21, 1985, and Feb. 5, 1996. Impressively, Lynchburg’s temperature records go all the way back to 1893.

Flint, Michigan, tied its all-time record low of 25 below zero, originally set Jan. 18, 1976. Weather records in Flint began in 1921.

Earlier this week Erie, Pennsylvania, had tied its all-time record low when it reached 18 below zero Monday (Feb. 16). That tied the record set Jan. 19, 1994. Not far away, Jamestown, New York, set an all-time record low of 31 below zero Tuesday, though its records only go back to 1960.

At least 72 daily record lows were set Friday morning from Connecticut to Florida to as far west as Indiana, including major cities such as New York, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Detroit and Cincinnati.

According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, 647 record lows were tied or broken Sunday through Thursday. This figure includes not only major airport reporting stations, but also smaller cooperative observation sites in rural areas.

All-time February record lows: Cleveland has broken its all-time record low for the month of February, reaching 17 below zero. The previous February record was minus 16 on Feb. 10, 1899, in the nation’s worst arctic outbreak in modern memory. It is also Cleveland’s coldest day since Jan. 19, 1994, when the city set its all-time record of 20 below zero.

Toledo, Ohio, also broke its all-time February record low as it sank to 19 below zero. Youngstown, Ohio, tied its February record low of 16 below set Feb. 9, 1934.

A Kentucky Mesonet site east of Richmond, Kentucky, reported a low of 32 below zero. According to the Kentucky Climate Center, this ties the all-time February record low for the state set in Princeton on Feb. 2, 1951. Kentucky’s all-time record low for any month and day was 37 below zero in Shelbyville on Jan. 19, 1994.

Coldest so late in the season: Norfolk, Virginia, reached 9 degrees. That city had never recorded a single-digit temperature this late in the season before; previously the latest single-digit low had been on Feb. 14 in 1899. Lexington, Kentucky, reached 18 below zero – also beating February 1899 for the coldest reading so late in the season.

Pittsburgh hit 10 below; the city has never before hit double digits below zero this late in the winter.

Coldest since the 1990s: Besides Cleveland (mentioned above), several other cities had their coldest temperatures since the 1990s:

– Philadelphia reached 2 degrees for its lowest reading since Jan. 19, 1994. However, it missed the daily record for Feb. 20 by 1 degree.

– Lexington, Kentucky, also had its coldest morning since that date.

– Huntington, West Virginia, reached 16 below zero for the first time since Jan. 19, 1994.

– Washington, D.C., hit 5 degrees for the first time since Feb. 5, 1996.

– Charleston, West Virginia, reached 11 below zero, its coldest reading since February 1996.

– Baltimore had its lowest temperature since Jan. 19, 1997, reaching 1 degree.

Coldest in at least a decade: New York City fell to 2 degrees, marking its lowest temperature since Central Park hit 1 degree on Jan. 16, 2004. It’s the Big Apple’s second 10-year low in less than a week; Central Park hit 3 degrees on Feb. 16, outdoing the 4-degree low on Jan. 7, 2014.

Rochester fell to -11ºF just before midnight on Friday evening. It is Rochester’s coldest temperature since hitting -12ºF on Jan. 10, 2004. It’s also the latest double-digit-below-zero reading (-10ºF or colder) on record in Rochester. The previous latest date was Feb. 18 in 1979.

Florida chill: Florida was not exempt from the cold. Record lows for the date included Key West (49); Miami (42, tie); Fort Lauderdale (40, tie); West Palm Beach (38); Naples (36); Fort Myers (35); Tampa (34); Orlando (33, tie); and Jacksonville (24), among others.

Crestview, in the Panhandle, dipped to 19 degrees Friday morning.

Recap: Records Broken Midweek

Wednesday Recap: Highs were up to 30 degrees below average in the Midwest, with highs mainly in the single digits and teens. In fact, the Twin Cities topped out at just 2 degrees Wednesday, or 28 degrees below average.

Parts of the Northeast and Southeast, including Florida, were 10 to 20 degrees below average. For example, Pensacola, Florida topped out at a brisk 53 Wednesday, 11 degrees below average, after a frosty morning low of 29.

According to the National Weather Service in Chicago, the Windy City has not had a high temperature below 10 degrees this late in the winter since 1963. And on Wednesday, Chicago’s high was only 8 degrees. The average high for Feb. 18 in Chicago is 36.

Thursday morning lows: Lows in the single digits were recorded as far south as northern Georgia and northern Alabama. Widespread subzero lows were reported as far south as Kentucky and Tennessee. Teens and 20s below zero were recorded in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Michigan. A few spots in northern Minnesota were in the minus 30s and even the minus 40s. The coldest temperature reported was minus 43 degrees near Cotton, Minnesota.

Daily record lows were set in the following cities: Chicago (minus 8 degrees), Louisville, Kentucky (minus 3 degrees), Paducah, Kentucky (minus 10 degrees), Lexington, Kentucky (minus 8 degrees), Bowling Green, Kentucky (minus 7 degrees), Greensboro, North Carolina (10 degrees), Nashville, Tennessee (5 degrees – tie), Cincinnati, Ohio (minus 6 degrees), Springfield, Missouri (minus 5 degrees), Asheville, North Carolina (3 degrees) and Lynchburg, Virginia (4 degrees).

For Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Paducah, Kentucky, Thursday morning was the coldest since Jan. 19, 1994 with lows of minus 7 degrees and minus 10 degrees, respectively. In Lexington, Kentucky, the low of minus 8 degrees was the coldest temperature there since Feb. 4, 1996.

Thursday highs: Bitterly cold weather lasted all day across much of the eastern half of the country Thursday.

Highs in both Lexington, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia, were 40 degrees below average based on preliminary data. Highs were at least 30 degrees below average from Chicago to Nashville to Atlanta to Pittsburgh. Atlanta’s high only reached 28, the first time Georgia’s capital has had a subfreezing high temperature this late in the season since March 2, 1980.

The high of 5 below zero at Gaylord, Michigan, was the coldest daily high ever recorded on any date in that northern Michigan town.


Top-secret military warning on Ebola biological weapon terror threat

Porton Down memo marked ‘UK secret UK eyes only’ reveals scientists analysed use of virus by al-Qaida or Isis

by Jamie Doward

February 21, 2015

           Scientists at the top-secret military research unit at Porton Down, Wiltshire, have been assessing the potential use of Ebola as a bioterrorism weapon, according to confidential documents.

A three-page memo, marked ‘UK secret UK eyes only’, reveals that the unit, where chemical, radiological and biological threats are analysed, was tasked with evaluating whether terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida and Islamic State (Isis) could use the deadly virus to attack western targets.

The heavily redacted document, which has been released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the unit was asked last October to provide “guidance on the feasibility and potential impact of a non-state actor exploiting the Ebola outbreak in west Africa for bioterrorism”.

It goes on to explain that non-state actor threat assessments are “provided by the joint terrorism analysis centre”, while threats to “UK deployed forces are provided by defence intelligence”. The memo outlines three possible scenarios under which terrorists might seek to exploit the Ebola outbreak, which so far has killed more than 9,000 people in the three most affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The first scenario outlined is completely redacted, illustrating the acute sensitivity about the issue. The second scenario is heavily blacked out but, according to the memo, “would be both logistically and technically challenging for a non-state group to undertake”. It observes: “Clearly there are practical issues involved with such a scenario that of themselves are often not insurmountable but taken together add enormously to the complexity of successfully undertaking this attack.”

A third, also heavily redacted, scenario “constitutes the most technically challenging of the scenarios considered here”.

Concerns that terrorist groups might look to “weaponise” Ebola have been raised by several thinktanks and politicians. Last year Francisco Martinez, Spain’s state secretary for security, claimed that Isis fighters were planning to carry out “lone wolf” attacks using biological weapons. Martinez said that his belief was informed by listening in to conversations uncovered in secret chatrooms used by terrorist cells. The claim has since been played down by others.

Jeh Johnson, the US department of homeland security secretary, said last October that “we’ve seen no specific credible intelligence that Isis is attempting to use any sort of disease or virus to attack our homeland”.

Dr Filippa Lentzos, a senior research fellow at King’s College London and an expert on bioterrorism, said terrorists looking to use the virus as a weapon would encounter problems. “It doesn’t spread quickly at all,” she said. “Terrorists are usually after a bang and Ebola isn’t going to give you that.”

On average, a person infected with Ebola will infect two more people. In a developed country such as the UK transmission would be even more limited.

“People with Ebola are infectious only when they show symptoms,” Lentzos said. “Could terrorists go to west Africa, get infected, then come back and sit on the tube? Sure, but they’re not likely to be functional for very long. They’re going to be very sick and you’ll see that. So they would have only a very small window in which to operate. And in a country with a developed public health system like the UK, there would be plenty of chances to clamp down on an outbreak.”

Other biological weapons would potentially be more attractive to terrorists, experts suggested. Unlike Ebola, which requires the transmission of body fluids, anthrax spores can be dried and milled down to form tiny particles that can be inhaled.

However, even the suggestion that Ebola could be weaponised made it a potentially powerful weapon for terrorists, Lentzos suggested. “If your aim is not to kill a lot of people, or even make them ill, but instead to frighten them and cause a huge level of societal disruption, then bioterrorism would do that. It elicits exceptionally high levels of fear, disgust and abhorrence.”

The use of pathogens as a weapon has been tried before. Following the attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, five people died in the US after opening letters laced with anthrax. In the 1980s, a cult in Oregon spread salmonella on salad bars in restaurants in an attempt to keep voters from the polls so its preferred candidates would win.

“The risk of small-scale bioterrorism attacks is possible and very likely,” Lentzos said.

Porton Down is known to have experimented with Ebola but a specific request for the laboratory to analyse the virus’s potential use by “non-state agents” highlights the growing concern that terrorists are becoming increasingly inventive in their choice of weapons.

One scenario could see terrorists combining genes from different pathogens to synthetically create super pathogens that could spread disease far more effectively than Ebola. But Lentzos suggested this was unlikely. “It’s pretty damn hard to make dangerous pathogens from scratch in the lab. Experts have a really hard time doing that. At this point I’m not sure that’s what we need to worry about.”

Lentzos said that focusing on the terrorist threat posed by Ebola risked losing sight of the bigger picture. “To beat Ebola we have to worry less about terrorism and more about public health. Disease knows no borders.”


Pro-Russia rebel build-up near port city alarms Ukraine military

February 21, 2015

by Natalia Zinets and Anton Zverev


           KIEV/SAKHANKA, Ukraine  – Pro-Russian separatists are building up forces and weapons in Ukraine’s south east and the Ukrainian military said on Saturday it was braced for the possibility of a rebel attack on the port city of Mariupol.

The Kiev military accused Russia on Friday of sending more tanks and troops towards the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk, further east along the Sea of Azov coast from Mariupol, expanding their presence on what it fears could be the next battlefront.

A rebel attack on Mariupol, a city of half a million people and potentially a gateway to Crimea, which Russia annexed last March, would almost certainly kill off a European-brokered ceasefire.

The ceasefire, which came into force last Sunday, has already been badly shaken by the rebel capture on Wednesday of Debaltseve, a railway junction in eastern Ukraine, forcing a retreat by thousands of Ukrainian troops in which at least 20 Ukrainian soldiers were killed.

In London on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Moscow of “extraordinarily craven behavior” at the expense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and said Washington and its allies were discussing imposing more sanctions on Russia for undermining the ceasefire agreed in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 12.

Mariupol is the biggest city still under government control in the two rebellious eastern provinces. Novoazovsk, where Kiev said Russia was reinforcing, lies 40 km (25 miles) to the east along the coast near the Russian border.

Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko did not refer specifically to the movement of Russian tanks and troops but said the separatists, who Kiev says are supported by Russian weapons and fighters, were conducting sabotage and intelligence operations round the clock to test government defenses.

“The adversary is carrying out a build-up of military equipment, weapons and fighters in the Mariupol area with the aim of a possible offensive on it,” Lysenko told journalists.

“They are sending out small sabotage groups out almost every night. We can see the activities of the enemy around Novoazovsk where military hardware, fighters and ammunition are being amassed,” he said.

One Ukrainian soldier had been killed and 40 others had been wounded in attacks in eastern Ukraine by the separatists in the past 24 hours, he said.




A Reuters media team in Sakhanka, half-way between Mariupol and Novoazovsk, were told by rebels that one of the local roads had been closed “because of fighting” though no shooting or shelling could be heard.

Some rebels had formed a base in a complex of houses in Bezimenne further up the coast and there were dozens of well-armed fighters milling around, some of whom looked like Russian military special forces wearing Russian army patches and insignia on their uniforms.

There were no signs of a new influx of tanks and troops in the region as mentioned by Kiev on Friday. A couple of military trucks could be seen on the road from Novoazovsk to Mariupol and an armored personnel carrier was parked in a forest near Shyrokine also on the coastal road.

In Bezimenne, one rebel fighter who gave his nom de guerre as Boxer denied the Kiev reports of more Russian tanks and fighters being sent to the area.

“It’s all a lie. The only people fighting here are miners, tractor drivers and farm workers,” he said.

He said rebel fighters were observing the ceasefire agreement worked out by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in the Belarussian capital and had pulled back heavy artillery from the Mariupol area

The United States, which is considering tightening sanctions against Russia and arming Kiev, also says it has sighted Russian reinforcements in the south east.

Kerry, meeting his British counterpart Philip Hammond in London, said the United States was certain that Russia was involved in the conflict and was supporting the separatists.

“Russia has engaged in an absolutely brazen and cynical process over these last days,” he said. “We are talking about additional sanctions, about additional efforts, and I’m confident over the next days people will make it clear that we are not going to play this game.”

Western nations have held out hope they can revive the Minsk peace deal, even though the rebels ignored it by seizing Debaltseve in one of the worst defeats for Kiev in the 10-month-old war.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Echo Moskvy radio station that Russia was focused on supporting the Minsk deal, according to TASS news agency.

“An obsessive idea to force someone to pay the cost … is not conducive to the resolution of the situation in south-east Ukraine,” Peskov was quoted as saying in response to Kerry’s remarks on the possibility of further sanctions against Russia.

The heightened tension in Ukraine’s south east came on the first anniversary of the overthrow of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich, which triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of pro-Russia rebellions. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the ensuing conflict.

More than 100 people were shot dead in Kiev in protests before Yanukovich fled for Russia, exactly a year ago.

While Poroshenko used the solemn occasion on Friday night to re-affirm Ukraine’s commitment to a future in Europe, pro-Kremlin organizations staged a rally in Moscow to condemn Yanukovich’s ousting.

Organizers said around 20,000 took to the streets in a march to show their support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine and condemn Yanukovich’s overthrow as illegal.


(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in London and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Angus MacSwan)



Unhackable’: Russian firm develops totally surveillance-proof smartphone

February 22, 2015


          Russia is entering the post-Snowden world with style. Its own anti-surveillance smartphone prototype, equipped with the latest in cutting-edge cybersecurity and intended for corporate users, is currently being tested.

This is not Russia’s first foray into smartphones, with the dual-screen YotaPhone making headlines recently with its second incarnation. However, the new project will offer unparalleled, corporate-level securit, when ready. The current version is a prototype and any photos are kept in strict secret.

Called the TaigaPhone, the phone will be manufactured by Taiga Systems, 99 percent of which belongs to Natalya Kasperskaya, owner of the InfoWatch group. The device will synergize with other tools provided by the company to its high-profile clients.

According to Izvestia daily, things like photos and work-related files, as well as phone conversations and metadata will not “leak” without the user’s consent, according to Taiga Systems co-owner Aleksey Nagorny.

“The device is entirely our own – the design, the schematics and circuitry. The phone will be manufactured in China,” he said.

The company used Android’s base for the creation of its own Taiga operating system. Inventing one from scratch was too costly and cumbersome.

But the system will also contain several levels of cyber defense, chief among them the ability to completely disable or enable select parts of the system. Nagorny mentioned the camera, as well as location services.

The phone can also be fashioned into a traditional “slab,” to allow only phone calls. The most extreme version of this setting will enable the user to only see incoming calls. And of course, no secure device would be complete without the ability to switch off your microphone.

All of these settings will require one or two buttons maximum to operate.

What’s more, a signal will alert the user if anyone is trying to hack the microphone or any other key features.

Symantec will cooperate with Taiga Systems on some of the more key security capabilities. Many now know that switching off your phone does not disable the GPS – that’s where Symantec comes in.

Other phones exist with similar capabilities, with the BlackPhone – an Android-based solution from Europe – released four months ago. It boasts information encryption, something the likes of whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have been very vocal about.

Despite the obvious advantages of encryption, high-security devices still aren’t the mainstream even in the corporate sector, for which the TaigaPhone was developed. The situation today is such that standard phones are bought in most cases, with the company installing various add-ons for its employees.

The price and arrival date are being kept under wraps.

According to Nagorny, the company is in talks to equip other makes with the Taiga system soon.

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