Bert the Chimney Sweep Takes the Red Pill
November 10, 2009 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Sunday night 60 Minutes aired a segment on the state of cyber crime & cyber terror which included the extraordinary claim that unknown hackers were behind massive power outages in Brazil in 2005 & 2007. Now Wired Magazine's Threat Level blog says that's just not true. According to two studies (PDF, Portuguese) by the Brazilian government it was buildup of soot on insulators that caused the blackouts, not super-hackers demonstrating their abilities. Is the US Intelligence Community passing around false information to justify its relevance?
posted by scalefree (52 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
My ex worked in the proposal department of a major "Beltway Bandit" government contracting firm (*cough* SAIC *cough*) and worked on a proposal to provide security consulting for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

An entire subsection of this proposal was devoted to the company's expertise in "terrorist graffiti." Apparently the claim was that terrorists devoted to disrupting the games would use various tags and signs as a means of communication, and only our experts can decode these symbols and give the Olympic organizers the priceless intelligence on terrorist plans to be gained thereby.

I never could figure out just what a terrorist would want to paint on a wall to send messages to other terrorists. "Plant bomb here?" or maybe "If you can read this, don't be here at 9:00 am on Thursday?"
posted by Naberius at 7:08 AM on November 10, 2009


I never could figure out just what a terrorist would want to paint on a wall to send messages to other terrorists. "Plant bomb here?"

Of course terrorists use graffiti to mark bomb sites. See this documentary photo for evidence.
posted by jedicus at 7:14 AM on November 10, 2009 [14 favorites]


I hear the Soviet Union has missiles, lots and lots of missiles.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:17 AM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


A federal institution lying to get more funding? Color me shocked!
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:25 AM on November 10, 2009


About 20 years ago, my hometown had a big "gang panic" thing which included the Chief of Police briefing the news about how the vegans and straight edgers were moving into town.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:25 AM on November 10, 2009 [11 favorites]


Metafilter: passing around false information to justify its relevance.

Forgive me - it's my first. Love you mefi!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:26 AM on November 10, 2009 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: Forgive me, it's my first.
posted by mhoye at 7:30 AM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Is the US Intelligence Community passing around false information to justify its relevance?

Isn't that why you have intelligence agencies in the first place? You have to justify all that military spending somehow.
posted by dortmunder at 7:36 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Related.
posted by peeedro at 7:37 AM on November 10, 2009


KirkJobSluder, it's funny how the right-wingers and other pro-establishment types always tend to fear the meekest types of "thugs." Right now, they're panicking over union thugs, but animal rights activists also a perennial source of fear.

It seems to me they're just searching for a justification for their unease about people different from them, even though it's mostly cognitive dissonance.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:39 AM on November 10, 2009


Is the US Intelligence Community passing around false information to justify its relevance?

The whole theory of "cyber-terror" or "cyber-war" or whatever is just completely absurd. What are these people doing to do, annoy us to death? "Oh no, I can't use GMail! I guess we better surrender to the Chinese!" It's so ridiculous.

Yes, obviously there are important bits of infrastructure connected to the internet, and it's also true that if you really know what you're doing and you mix in some social engineering tricks you can usually hack into most systems, those systems are not going to be capable of killing anyone.

What's happening is that people realized that there was money to be made in hyping these threats and getting funding, and of course whenever there is money to be made on fear you are going to find people running around Washington DC squeezing the fear glands as hard as they can.

I feel like I've mentioned this a bunch of times but military contractors all fund these think tanks in DC designed to try to inject fear into the "conventional wisdom" of DC so that they keep their funding. And they are very successful. Pro-piece voices are not as well funded, of course, because there's no money in it. The people at these think tanks don't do real research or thinking in a traditional sense, rather they flatter the prejudices and pre-conceived notions of the powerful, just like Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell do with their audiences.

The Cybersecurity stuff is just the most absurd, because it's such obvious bullshit. It's peddled to people like Joe Lieberman and other Geezers who probably barely even know how to turn on a computer and as far as they know it's all just magic.

I'm not saying computer security isn't a problem, but it's mostly a problem of criminal hacking gangs stealing credit card numbers and stuff like that. This fear mongering is all about budgets.
posted by delmoi at 7:54 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Television "news" shows puffing up Scary Monsters to distract us? Demonstrating a perfect liplock on the anal sphincters of the defense industry? Color me shocked.

What we need is a new show called To Catch a Defense Contractor.

Must have been a slow week for missing white girls.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:58 AM on November 10, 2009


Fear and Overreaction.
posted by metagnathous at 8:04 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


mccarty.tim: The funny thing is, about the same time we did, in fact, see increased gang-related drug and property crime in the same time period. However, the actual criminal gangs were trying to stay below the radar of law enforcement compared to a few aggressive and young political activists who were tagging everything with a vertical surface.

This is a bit of a derail, but from my job as a night watchman that involved looking at a lot of electrical equipment in various stages of construction, I find the whole business of anonymous hackers having the ability to take down largely self-contained systems that include big-ass manual switches and breakers to be a bit of a stretch. Then again, I also had just enough organic chemistry to doubt the ubiquity of binary liquid explosives as well.

delmoi: Oh, I think that what these "cyber-terrorism" scares are really about is counterintelligence rather than threats of terrorism. And there have certainly been disturbing signs lately that the United States might be very weak in protecting its privacy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:05 AM on November 10, 2009


well duh. the internet is the new pot?
posted by es_de_bah at 8:07 AM on November 10, 2009


In related news, is this the same 60 Minutes episode in which the reporter was apparently shocked to discover that bittorrent involves packets as part of a scare piece on media piracy?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:08 AM on November 10, 2009


While I am right at the top of any list of people who distrust what might get said by govt agencies, to enhance budgets or justify their existence, and it is easy enough to scoff at their claims, might we not perhaps be a bit suspicious of a Brazilian govt that claims that it was merely dust that caused a huge blackout? Why trust that govt more than ours? or an govt?
posted by Postroad at 8:11 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


the vegans and straight edgers were moving into town.

To be fair to the chief of police, this would terrify anyone.
posted by atrazine at 8:16 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


From KJS's link:
Then came an interview with director Steven Soderbergh, who suggested that The Matrix would never be made today, thanks to the billions lost by file sharing over the 'Net.

"I'll tell you Leslie," Soderbergh declared in all seriousness, "there are days when I really wish Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet."
Hahahah. WTF?

But other then that, most of the computer geeks I knew had illicit copies of the Matrix. I don't remember if I got mine online at a computer lab or if I got it from a friend at a LAN party, but either way, I certainly had it.

It was also a pre-release version missing the musical soundtrack and a few shots from the ending were missing. The scene where Neo meets trinity in the club had no music, and you could hear glasses tinkling in the background.

I did see it in the theater first.
posted by delmoi at 8:16 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


In related news, is this the same 60 Minutes episode in which the reporter was apparently shocked to discover that bittorrent involves packets as part of a scare piece on media piracy?

No, that was the week before.

Is it just me, or has 60 minutes totally lost any relevance they might have once had?
posted by SteveInMaine at 8:32 AM on November 10, 2009


Postroad: Well, in this case, we also have to weigh a very public report with the name José Guilherme Silva Menezes Senna attached vs. anonymous sources who won't go on the record. So at a minimum, we have radically different levels of accountability to consider between the two claims. Given the track record of the United States intelligence community over the last decade, sourced claims should be considered with caution, and unsourced claims considered with profound skepticism.

But yes, mechanical failure of an insulator on a key power line strikes me as entirely believable, having lived through power failures caused by contractors accidentally clipping lines with a backhoe, ground squirrels committing suicide by transformer, transformer blow-outs, badly-maintained systems catching fire, and freak tornado strikes on substations. We've had almost 100 years of electrical blackouts without panics regarding cyberterrorism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on November 10, 2009


MetaFilter: One man's graffiti is another man's bombing.
posted by phaedon at 8:33 AM on November 10, 2009


Honestly, I blame the whole host of movies in the late 90s about how the Internet was trying to kill Sandra Bullock or whatever. A majority of the populace still thinks that computers are about a quarter-step away from witchcraft, and will gladly fork over funds to have a shaman wave a USB chicken leg over their network and promise protection from cyber-ghost-ninjas.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:34 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is it just me, or has 60 minutes totally lost any relevance they might have once had?

Has 60 Minutes had any relevance in the last 20 years other than to serve as an ongoing visual document of Andy Rooney's dotage?
posted by blucevalo at 8:34 AM on November 10, 2009


for those who missed 60 minutes...here is what got said

http://realneo.us/content/cyber-attacks-caused-brazil-power-outages-%E2%80%93-us-unprepared

If a major guy in our intel says one thing, and he not to be believed, ok. Then should we believe another guy from another country who says something that differs?

I am very familiar with power blackouts...but we are talking about a very extended one in Brazil. What I wondered about: Why Brazil? unhappy with their coffee?or perhaps sort of like science guys: test on small animals before using it on big one (the US)?
we will never know for sure, and I guess it is nice to think 60 Minutes was way out of line. But that it is possible seems not doubted by a lot of people whose opinions seem reasonable.
posted by Postroad at 8:43 AM on November 10, 2009


From the transcript:
Several prominent intelligence sources confirmed that there were a series of cyber attacks in Brazil: one north of Rio de Janeiro in January 2005 that affected three cities and tens of thousands of people, and another, much larger event beginning on Sept. 26, 2007.

That one in the state of Espirito Santo affected more than three million people in dozens of cities over a two-day period, causing major disruptions. In Vitoria, the world's largest iron ore producer had seven plants knocked offline, costing the company $7 million. It is not clear who did it or what the motive was.
Anonymous, unnamed sources agree that anonymous, unnamed individuals with no identifiable motive caused two major blackouts in two years in Brazil. The same anonymous, unnamed sources are also demanding that the government pad their budgets with more millions of dollars.

Doesn't this suspiciously sound a bit like a shakedown?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:55 AM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Then came an interview with director Steven Soderbergh, who suggested that The Matrix would never be made today, thanks to the billions lost by file sharing over the 'Net.

The same Hollywood that just spent half a billion dollars making Avatar?

I know, I know. Derail.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:20 AM on November 10, 2009


It could quite possibly be true, I want to see confirmation both from sources who are willing to go on the record, and from media outlets much more sober on these issues than 60 minutes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:34 AM on November 10, 2009


From a cynical conspiratorial standpoint, it makes sense for governments to make people afraid of hackers and computer nerds- think of how women were controlled in medieval Europe by the threat of being denounced as witches.

Of course, I'd have to be a conspiracy nut to believe that...
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:06 AM on November 10, 2009


Wait! What? You mean an organization that invented something called PsyOps would use it to sustain its own existence. I am shocked, I tell you, shocked!
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:17 AM on November 10, 2009


No, but Metafilter is.
posted by banished at 10:45 AM on November 10, 2009


There's so much about this that annoys me. It just muddies the water on an issue that's complex enough without rumors & bad analysis confusing things further. How are people supposed to make good decisions in the face of bad information? Yes, SCADA systems are vulnerable to hacking; no, this wasn't a case of it. Yes, cyber attacks can break the grid, but it's orders of magnitude easier & more certain to take it down with well-placed low-yield kinetic attacks that can cause the same network-based cascading failure effects. It's a finesse move to do it through the Internet, unnecessarily complicated & less likely to succeed. The topology if the grid itself is much more of a vulnerability than any open SCADA system ever could be.
posted by scalefree at 11:18 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


A FUDmonger in action.
posted by moonbiter at 11:52 AM on November 10, 2009


From what I've read, there actually are some significant software vulnerabilities in most power grids. But (again, as I understand it) the main concern isn't exploit, but rather instability. Not that a really clever type couldn't craft a (logistically complex) exploit to work against that, but my understanding is that the stability problems make it more or less impossible to predict the outcome.

OTOH, the power grid has great mechanical vulnerabilities. Those would be much easier to exploit. But you'd do it with hardware (e.g. a full tanker truck of gasoline), not software. And these modern terrorists are all abut cost effectiveness, doncha know.

There needs to be money & effort spent on modernizing the power grid. But if security theater is driving the priorities, I can't believe it's going to get spent in the right places.
posted by lodurr at 11:56 AM on November 10, 2009


on postview, scalefree sed it better.
posted by lodurr at 11:58 AM on November 10, 2009


I heard a secondhand account of an executive at a utility company speaking of attacks on wireless utility networks via hot-air balloon. I shit you not.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:26 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


well, there you go: low yield kinetics in action!
posted by lodurr at 12:29 PM on November 10, 2009


lodurr and scalefree: Yeah, not that I'd do such a thing, but if I wanted to blackout a city, I'd use the internet vulnerability for what it's best at: gathering intelligence. You probably wouldn't even need something as extravagant as a truck of gas to cripple the energy feed of a city. Civilian dynamite or a high-calibre military surplus rifle could do the trick if you knew the right cross-country transmission line or rural substation to hit.

Heck, if there is anything we've learned about terrorism, it's that the methods are flexible to work around security theater.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:36 PM on November 10, 2009


come on, couldn't you think of something involving the balloon?
posted by lodurr at 12:41 PM on November 10, 2009


Oh, I didn't preview, but probably. Don't know how though.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:46 PM on November 10, 2009


someday I want to write a thriller where terrorists use outlandishly elaborate methods to do really simple things, and everyone in the book treats it with total seriousness. (for example, i imagine someone tying together sticks of dynamite like a bola and throwing it up at the lines.) of course, I'm probably describing 99% of all thrillers published...
posted by lodurr at 12:47 PM on November 10, 2009


If the lights are all out, don't touch any wires.
posted by carping demon at 1:58 PM on November 10, 2009


They're not reporting false information to justify funding. It should be pretty obvious what this is about. Setting a precedent and fooling the masses into believing the crap has one agenda and one agenda only - to take control over and censor the internet "for national security purposes" and thus kill the last outlet of true free speech and the complete control of all information by corporate media scum.

Be afraid!
posted by GrooveJedi at 2:45 PM on November 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is it just me, or has 60 minutes totally lost any relevance they might have once had?

2 words: Katie Couric.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:58 PM on November 10, 2009


Don't be naive, guys. Didn't you see Die Hard 4? Hackers can do anything!
posted by brundlefly at 3:55 PM on November 10, 2009


Ok, Brazil JUST had a massive blackout. Seriously. Power is still returning, but several states were affected.
posted by Trielli at 5:33 PM on November 10, 2009


My first thought when I saw this story Sunday night was that the blackouts in Brazil were most likely caused by some U.S. PsyOps program, just to see if it could be done.
posted by Sailormom at 6:37 PM on November 10, 2009


Ok, Brazil JUST had a massive blackout.

Yep, it did. I'll admit, that's kind of spooky. But correlation is not causation. I'll wait & see what turns up.
posted by scalefree at 7:55 PM on November 10, 2009


Sheesh, half of Brazil went dark. Something is amiss.
posted by bearwife at 9:19 PM on November 10, 2009


Sadly, my belief is that this kind of scare tactic is a proven budget improvement effort for police and military forces alike. I remember sitting with a couple of ex-cop security guys a few years ago, and they were freaking out because "PERVERTS ARE SELLING DOPE TO SIX-YEAR-OLDS IN OUR SCHOOLYARDS!!!" I couldn't and still don't believe it, but every little bit of nervousness in the populace adds to the bottom line on budget day.

Delmoi: "This fear mongering is all about budgets."
posted by sneebler at 9:57 PM on November 10, 2009


Didn't nearly the entire Northeastern US plus parts of Canada go dark a few years ago because some untrimmed trees caused a single power plant in Ohio to go down? I doubt Brazil's infrastructure is much better.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:22 AM on November 11, 2009


Considering they've already gone down twice in the past 4 years, a third outage is not all that remarkable.
posted by scalefree at 9:04 AM on November 11, 2009


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