Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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Will Russian Hackers Cause the Next Financial Crisis?

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 10:48 AM EDT

The US brought criminal charges Thursday against a gang of Russian and Ukrainian programmers in what is the biggest hacking case yet in the United States. The men were indicted for a long-running scheme of stealing and selling 160 million credit card numbers from more than a dozen big American companies. But the case has bigger implications, according to a story in the New York Times today. One of the men was also able to hack into the servers of the Nasdaq stock exchange, raising fears among US and international authorities that the next financial crisis could be caused by rogue programmers.

One of the Russian men, Aleksandr Kalinin, was also charged Thursday in a separate case with having gained access to Nasdaq servers for two years between 2007 and 2010. The indictment reveals that Kalinin, who also went by the names Grig and Tempo, had access to an unknown amount of information on a bunch of Nasdaq servers, where he was able to enter commands to steal, change, or delete data, and at certain points could even perform systems administrator functions. According to the Times, federal prosecutors, international banking regulators, the FBI, and the financial industry are all worried that next time this happens hackers could gain access to even more tightly secured trading platforms and disrupt the financial system.

From the Times:

While Mr. Kalinin never penetrated the main servers supporting Nasdaq’s trading operations—and appears to have caused limited damage at Nasdaq—the attack raised the prospect that hackers could be getting closer to the infrastructure that supports billions of dollars of trades each hour.

"As today's allegations make clear, cybercriminals are determined to prey not only on individual bank accounts, but on the financial system itself," Preet Bharara, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said in announcing the case.

It is a pivotal moment, just a week after a report from the World Federation of Exchanges and an international group of regulators warned about the vulnerability of exchanges to cybercrime. The report said that hackers were shifting their focus away from stealing money and toward more "destabilizing aims."

In a survey conducted for the report, 89 percent of the world's exchanges said that hacking posed a "systemic risk" to global financial markets...

At a Senate hearing on cybersecurity on Thursday, a representative of several financial industry groups, Mark Clancy, said that "for the financial services industry, cyberthreats are a constant reality and a potential systemic risk to the industry."

The World Federation of Exchanges (WFE) report found that 53 percent of all stock exchanges had experienced a cyberattack in the past year.

My colleague Nick Baumann has reported on how mere programming glitches at the mid-sized financial firm Knight Capital a year ago caused losses at the firm of $10 million a minute, and set off turmoil in the stock market. But an intentional attack could have more drastic effects. Baumann pointed to a 2011 article by John Bates, a computer scientist who has designed software behind complicated trading algorithms. "Fears of algorithmic terrorism, where a well-funded criminal or terrorist organization could find a way to cause a major market crisis, are not unfounded," Bates wrote at the time. "This type of scenario could cause chaos for civilization."

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4 Takeaways From Obama's Big Speech on the Economy

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 2:24 PM EDT

President Barack Obama delivered a major address Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in which he laid out a wide-ranging plan to get the still struggling American economy raring again, and called on Republicans to drop their obstructionism and play along. Here are four takeaways from the speech:

Obama laid out a broad plan to create new jobs and train American workers: Obama said he will push initiatives to help manufacturers bring jobs back to America, and "continue to focus on strategies to create good jobs in wind, solar, and natural gas that are lowering energy costs and dangerous carbon pollution."

The president also emphasized the importance of education and job training in bolstering the American workforce. He said he would continue to push for universal preschool, and added that "federal agencies are moving on my plan to connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed internet over the next five years." He also reminded the audience that Congress is closing in on a plan to lower student loan interest rates.

The president will circumvent Congress if he has to: In the face of an obstinate Congress, Obama said that he would reach out to the American people in speeches over the coming weeks to win them over to his side and get them to pressure their representatives. "Over the next several weeks, in towns across this country, I will engage the American people in this debate," he promised. Obama vowed to use his own executive authority, too, to push the economy forward, and said he'd also "pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents—anybody who can help—and enlist them in our efforts."

Charts: Here Is How Banks Get What They Want

| Wed Jul. 24, 2013 11:31 AM EDT

The Dodd-Frank financial reform act of 2010 turns three years old this month. But because of intense Wall Street lobbying, only about a third of the provisions it requires have actually been made into rules by Wall Street regulators, and many have gaping loopholes designed by industry lobbyists. A new analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for government transparency, starkly illustrates why regulatory agencies are so swayed by industry: over the past three years, those whose job it is to police Wall Street have met with big banks 14 times more often than pro-reform groups to discuss proposed Dodd-Frank rules. 

The Sunlight Foundation reviewed three years worth of meetings that banks, industry lobbyists, corporations, and financial reform advocacy groups had with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, and found that these regulators had met 2,118 times with financial institutions, and only 153 time with pro-reform groups. Here's what that looks like, via the Sunlight Foundation:

And here is how those meetings break down by agency:

Goldman Sachs, the top meeting-goer, had 222 consultations with regulators over the past three years. JPMorgan Chase met with the agencies 207 times, and Morgan Stanley 175 times. The topics at those meetings were most likely to be derivatives (financial products with values derived from from underlying variables, like crop prices or interest rates), which Dodd-Frank brought under regulation for the first time, and the Volcker rule portion of the law, which would limit risky trading by banks.

From the Foundation's report: 

Regardless of how we cut the data, the same striking pattern holds: financial institutions, especially the big banks, are dogged and ubiquitous. Pro-reform groups are stretched thin. Lawyers and lobbyists are also active participants, primarily representing the banks. A number of other corporations show up frequently, most commonly in the energy and agro-business sectors, where derivatives and other market hedges are common practice.

Because of the barrage of industry lobbying, "Regulators themselves have become overly concerned about finalizing rules," CFTC commissioner Bart Chilton told Yahoo News recently. "Over-analysis paralysis, fears of litigation risks, and the lack of people-power have all contributed to the slowdown."

Strong-arming regulators behind the scenes is just one tactic Wall Street uses to get its way. Litigation, and new legislation to gut the 2010 financial reform law play a part too. As a result, Chilton says, "Much of Dodd-Frank is dying on the vine."

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