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Russian Hackers Probably Know Your Passwords

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 6:36 PM EDT

Holy crap:

A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses, security researchers say.

The records, discovered by Hold Security, a firm in Milwaukee, include confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, ranging from household names to small Internet sites....At the request of The New York Times, a security expert not affiliated with Hold Security analyzed the database of stolen credentials and confirmed it was authentic.

So far, says the Times, the Russian hackers are mostly using the information "to send spam on social networks like Twitter at the behest of other groups, collecting fees for their work." I guess that counts as good news, all things considered, though obviously that could change quickly. Here's how the Russian gang did it:

They began as amateur spammers in 2011, buying stolen databases of personal information on the black market. But in April, the group accelerated its activity....Since then, the Russian hackers have been able to capture credentials on a mass scale using botnets — networks of zombie computers that have been infected with a computer virus — to do their bidding. Any time an infected user visits a website, criminals command the botnet to test that website to see if it is vulnerable to a well-known hacking technique known as a SQL injection, in which a hacker enters commands that cause a database to produce its contents. If the website proves vulnerable, criminals flag the site and return later to extract the full contents of the database.

“They audited the Internet,” Mr. Holden said. It was not clear, however, how computers were infected with the botnet in the first place.

By July, criminals were able to collect 4.5 billion records — each a username and password — though many overlapped. After sorting through the data, Hold Security found that 1.2 billion of those records were unique. Because people tend to use multiple emails, they filtered further and found that the criminals’ database included about 542 million unique email addresses.

I guess I really should get started on my annual password-changing exercise. Or maybe get a password manager, which I've resisted so far for reasons that may not really be that compelling. Or, alternatively, just forget the whole thing except for a very few sites that pose a real threat if hacked. I mean, do I really care if someone gets the password to my LA Times account? What good would it do them? Unfortunately, even on a fairly narrow reading of "real threat," I come up with nearly a couple dozen sites. That's still a lot of passwords to change.

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This Woman Just Shattered One of Pro Sports’ Most Enduring Glass Ceilings

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 5:23 PM EDT
Becky Hammon, the newest member of the Spurs' coaching staff

The San Antonio Spurs confirmed today what was already clear: The NBA is, by far, the most progressive Big Four sports league when it comes to gender equity. The team announced the hiring of Becky Hammon, a six-time All-Star with the WNBA's San Antonio Stars, as an assistant coach. When the season tips off this fall, she'll be the first woman on the coaching bench in NBA history.

Women have held other (and less formal) jobs on NBA staffs before, but Hammon, 37, will become the first full-time female coach. It makes sense that the Spurs are at the forefront, given the recently crowned NBA champs' history of innovative, progressive leadership. (They lead the league in international players, for example.) And it further boosts a newsworthy summer for women in the NBA: In addition to Hammon's hiring, the basketball players' union named lawyer Michele Roberts as its executive director.

Notably, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) named the NBA the leading sports league for gender diversity in its annual report, adding that while women aren't as represented as they could be, the league still handily beat MLB and the NFL. Forty percent of the NBA's league office is staffed by women, helping it earn a B+ grade from TIDES. (The MLB and NFL got C+ and C grades, respectively.)

So why is basketball so far ahead of the other leagues? Slate's Amanda Hess suggests that it could be because, unlike football and baseball, women actually play basketball—and they're good at it. From the NCAA to the WNBA (which the NBA created in 1996) to the Olympics, we're used to seeing women like Hammon excel on the court. On the other hand, female engagement in the NFL stops at the sidelines, where cheerleaders are routinely degraded by team organizations.

Hess also argues that part of the NBA's commitment to gender equity stems from the view of former commissioner David Stern, who was instrumental in shaping the league into the powerhouse it is today. Stern is a noted liberal, for one, but also a shrewd businessman; he figured that making women essential to the league would boost the its bottom line. To an extent, it did: Stern argued that the WNBA initiatives helped to expand the NBA's female audience, even though it still lags behind the NFL's.

Today's decision from the Spurs, however, seems to disregard any business calculus. The best candidate for the job was hired, and she's a woman.

Chart of the Day: The Terrorist Watchlist By the Numbers

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 1:49 PM EDT

Over at the Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux break down the federal government's terrorist watchlist for us:

Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database—a watchlist of “known or suspected terrorists” that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments—more than 40 percent are described by the government as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.”

....[Classified] documents, obtained from a source in the intelligence community, also reveal that the Obama Administration has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the terrorist screening system. Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000—surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.

....Most people placed on the government’s watchlist begin in a larger, classified system known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)....In the summer of 2013, officials celebrated what one classified document prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center refers to as “a milestone”—boosting the number of people in the TIDE database to a total of one million, up from half a million four years earlier.

There's much more at the link. Click to read the whole thing.

The Siberian Permafrost Just Sent Us a Warning Message

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

One of the scary aspects of climate change is the possibility of positive feedback loops. When Arctic ice melts, for example, it exposes seawater, which doesn't reflect as much sunlight as ice. So more sunlight is absorbed, which makes the planet even warmer, which melts more ice, rinse and repeat.

Of all of these feedback loops, the scariest might well be the melting of the Siberian permafrost. As the permafrost melts, it releases large amounts of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. That warms the planet, which speeds up the permafrost melt, which releases more methane, ad infinitum.

The good news about the permafrost is that it's probably not going to start seriously melting until the middle of the century or beyond. The bad news is that it might already be starting:

By now, you’ve heard of the crater on the Yamal Peninsula. It’s the one that suddenly appeared, yawning nearly 200 feet in diameter, and made several rounds in the global viral media machine....There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

This particular crater is apparently due to abnormally hot summers in 2012 and 2013, and one or two hot summers could happen regardless of changes in global temperatures. As usual, then, we can't say for sure that this is a direct result of climate change. But what we can say is that it's a canary in the coal mine. As the climate warms, we're going to see more and more craters like this. Individually, we'll never know if climate change is to blame. But collectively, there won't be much doubt. And if and when the permafrost goes into an irreversible meltdown, you might want to pack your bags and move to Tierra del Fuego.

Obama Wants Businesses to Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Are

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

The Economist interviewed President Obama this week, and Clive Crook was discomfited by this snippet:

The Economist: We see a lot of business people and they do complain about regulation.

Mr Obama: They always complain about regulation. That’s their job....The business community does have broader responsibilities to the system as a whole. And although the general view today is that the only responsibility that a corporate CEO has is to his shareholders, I think the American people generally sense—

The Economist: Do you really think that's true? Because when I talk to corporate CEOs, that’s one of their complaints. If you ask for a complaint about the White House, they’ll say it is the attitude. Every CEO nowadays is involved in nine different social responsibility things—it’s ingrained in most public—

Mr Obama: Well, I think—here’s what’s interesting. There’s a huge gap between the professed values and visions of corporate CEOs and how their lobbyists operate in Washington. And I’ve said this to various CEOs. When they come and they have lunch with me—which they do more often than they probably care to admit (laughter)—and they’ll say, you know what, we really care about the environment, and we really care about education, and we really care about getting immigration reform done—then my challenge to them consistently is, is your lobbyist working as hard on those issues as he or she is on preserving that tax break that you’ve got? And if the answer is no, then you don’t care about it as much as you say.

Oddly, Crook is upset because he thinks this demonstrates that Obama is indeed anti-business, just as his critics claim. Here's what he has to say about that:

Interesting to see a politician accuse business people of insincerity. Even on the view that executives are entirely self-serving, by the way, you'd expect them to care a lot about education and immigration reform. Aside from that, how peculiar of Obama, pausing briefly from his busy schedule of political fund-raising, to criticize businesses for the effort they put into lobbying. If lobbying didn't work, businesses wouldn't do it. It works because politicians are receptive. That's their job.

Think about what we have here. The Economist interviewer is apparently taking at face value business complaints that they never get credit for the immense amount of social work they do. That's an odd bit of naiveté for a normally cynical business publication. Then Obama points out the obvious: what corporate CEOs say and what they do are rather different things. If you want to know what their real priorities are, take a look at what their lobbyists focus on.

Sensible enough, you'd think. But Crook doesn't agree. And here's the weirdest part: he thinks that it's somehow unfair of Obama to criticize business lobbying when, after all, it works. On this reading, the tidal wave of pseudo-bribery that lubricates Washington DC is beyond criticism precisely because politicians are so eager to accept all these pseudo-bribes. How can you be pro-business, and at the same time be critical of the endlessly parochial goals of corporate lobbying?

Those seem like perfectly compatible positions to me, so I don't really get this. Perhaps it gets to the difference between being pro-market and pro-business. These are rather different things, but they often get mushed together without much thought.

In any case, I have no doubt that Obama doesn't instinctively venerate the business community the way George Bush (or even Bill Clinton) did. Nevertheless, pointing out that most corporations aren't quite the social visionaries they claim to be is hardly evidence of anything other than a clear view of the world. After all, as Crook says, lobbying works. That being the case, surely Obama is right: if they really cared about the environment and education and so forth, they'd be mounting big lobbying operations and demanding that Republicans support them if they ever want to see another dime. But for the most part, they haven't. Money has spoken.

Rand Paul Is Learning How To Be a Good Stage Actor

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 11:12 AM EDT

Back when he was a reckless and irresponsible youngster, Rand Paul suggested cutting off all foreign aid, specifically including aid to Israel. "I want to be known as a friend of Israel," he said, "but not with money you don’t have."

Oh wait. That was actually 2011. Not so long ago after all. It's certainly well after the internet was invented and politicians' past statements became impossible to hide or fudge. Nevertheless, Paul is now running for president, so he needs to revise his position. That shouldn't be too hard, really, but as usual, he's making it hard:

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Monday denied that he once supported ending federal aid to Israel — an idea he proposed as recently as 2011.

“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” Paul told Yahoo News when asked if he still thought the U.S. should phase out aid to Israel, which has been battling Hamas in Gaza for weeks. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.

This is starting to become one of Paul's distinguishing features. He's also done the same thing regarding the Civil Rights Act. Instead of simply saying that his thinking has evolved in some way or another, he aggressively denies he ever held his previous position and then pretends to be outraged that some liberal shill of a reporter is deliberately misrepresenting his position. How dare he?!? So far the mainstream press isn't really giving him much grief over this, but that could change if he mounts a serious presidential run.

Poor Rand Paul. He's discovering that the actual existing Republican Party isn't really all that libertarian after all. If he wants to be president, he's going to have to jettison a whole bunch of fervently held positions, and he's obviously not very happy about that. I wonder how many times he's going to pull a performance like this? If he perfects it, maybe he deserves a Tony.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 5, 2014

Tue Aug. 5, 2014 9:42 AM EDT

US Navy Lt. Audrey Koecher talks with Guetemalan children at a community relations event. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Wojciechowski)

Three-Quarters of Mexican Child Migrants Have Been Caught at the Border Before

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mexican child migrant map
Pew Research Center

While the focus of the recent border crisis has been on unaccompanied child migrants from Central America, thousands of Mexican kids also have been apprehended trying to cross into the United States since last fall. According to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority had been caught several times before—and 15 percent of them reported having been previously apprehended six times or more.

The US Border Patrol made more than 11,300 apprehensions of unaccompanied Mexican child migrants from October 2013 to May 2014. Among the kids picked up, 76 percent said they'd been caught "multiple times before," according to the Pew report, which is based on data provided by Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As the map above shows, 64 percent of Mexican minors crossing alone came from six states: Tamaulipas, Sonora, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Guanajuato, and Michoacán.

Currently, child migrants from Mexico (and Canada) can be deported shortly after apprehension, unlike kids from elsewhere, who are reunified with US-based family while their immigration proceedings are pending. As I wrote last month in a post about why the federal government shouldn't change the law to more easily deport Central American kids:

When an unaccompanied Mexican child is apprehended by the Border Patrol, agents are supposed to screen him within 48 hours. Specifically, they are supposed to determine three things: (1) whether the child has been the victim of trafficking; (2) whether the child has a fear of returning to Mexico; and (3) whether the child is able to voluntarily make the decision to return home. If the screening reveals that the child hasn't been trafficked, isn't afraid to go back, and can make the decision by himself, then he can be sent back.

In practice, says the ACLU's Sarah Mehta, "when they're happening, the screenings are inconsistent, but often they're not happening." Some agents don't speak Spanish; in other cases, Mehta says, kids have reported not being asked any questions at all, or being told by agents that they can't get deportation relief for whatever they experienced at home or along the way to the United States.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a UN Refugee Commission report claimed that more than 95 percent of Mexican children caught at the border by themselves in fiscal 2013 were returned to Mexico. If Mexican kids do have legitimate asylum claims, they're likely not being heard, advocates claim. And when these kids do get sent back, many try to cross again.

Here's another Pew chart, this one showing the numbers of unaccompanied child apprehensions by country of origin since 2009:

child migrants over time
Pew Research Center

33 Years Ago: Reagan Goes Union-Busting, Fires 11,000 Striking Air Traffic Controllers

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A group of uniformed men, who acknowledged they were military air traffic controllers, stand at the door which leads to the tower of Washington’s National Airport, as a guard rises to let them in. The Reagan administration claims its firings of striking air traffic controllers have broken the strike, partly due to the work of military controllers. Jeff Taylor/AP
 

Just days after members of the Professional Air Traffic Controls Organization (PATCO) went on strike, President Ronald Reagan declared the strike illegal under the Taft-Hartley act. Reagan ordered the 13,000 striking air traffic controllers to return to work within 48 hours. On August 5, 1981 Reagan fired over 11,000 workers who refused to return to work. PATCO, who supported Reagan in the 1980 election, was decertified as a union and the fired workers were banned from holding federal jobs ever again. It took the FAA close to ten years to return staffing to its normal level. Some former air traffic employees were eventually rehired. Military air traffic controllers also worked as replacements until new controllers could be trained. In 1993 Bill Clinton lifted the civil service ban on former strikers.

President Reagan with US Attorney General William French Smith making a statement to the press regarding the air traffic controllers strike from the Rose Garden. White House Photo/Ronald Reagan Library

 

Did the NRA Know About Robert Dowlut's Reversed Murder Conviction?

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
The Webley Mark VI revolver that police said Dowlut dug up in the South Bend City Cemetery

For all its bluster, the National Rifle Association also knows how to maintain a disciplined silence in the face of uncomfortable questions. Most notably, it went to ground in the wake of the Newtown school shooting in December 2012, resurfacing after a few days with bland talking points, followed by Wayne LaPierre's assertion that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that in the week since I published an investigation into the complicated past of the NRA's top lawyer, the gun lobby has not responded. 

The subject of my article, NRA general counsel Robert J. Dowlut, is a low-profile yet influential legal expert who has spent more than 35 years pushing for an aggressively broad interpretation of the Second Amendment. In 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison for shooting his girlfriend's mother in South Bend, Indiana. Several years later, the conviction was reversed due to bad police work, and Dowlut eventually walked free.

Before I reported on Dowlut's background, I contacted him 10 times by phone, email, and registered mail, explaining what I was writing about and inviting him to share his side of the story. When I did not hear from him, I asked the NRA and its public affairs head, Andrew Arulanandam, for comment multiple times. I also sent registered letters directly to NRA leaders, including executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, president Jim Porter, and lobbying head Chris Cox. None responded.

If Dowlut or the NRA do decide to talk, here are the four questions I'd most like them to answer:

1. Did Dowlut ever disclose his past to his colleagues or the NRA? So far, none of Dowlut's colleagues and friends have come forward to talk about what they did or didn't know. David Hardy, a prominent gun rights writer who's known Dowlut "longer than I can remember" told me he had "no idea" about Dowlut's previous conviction and reversal. Other gun rights groups and bloggers have also been conspicuously silent since the story ran.

2. How did Dowlut's experience influence his career? Dowlut's writings strongly suggest that his legal odyssey played a role in shaping his philosophy. In a 1983 article, he disapprovingly cited Supreme Court Justice Byron White's dissent in Miranda v. Arizona, a case very similar to his own. White had predicted that protecting criminal suspects' rights "will return a killer, a rapist or other criminal to the streets." Did Dowlut's position—that gun rights are another essential defense against official overreach—stem from his time as the accused? Did this stance put Dowlut at odds with the NRA's tough-on-crime talking points? (Consider that the NRA's president from 1992 to 1994 was Robert Corbin, the prosecutor who made a point of retrying Ernesto Miranda after the landmark 1966 Supreme Court decision bearing his name. Corbin also served as the vice chairman of the NRA Civil Rights Defense Fund; Dowlut is the fund's longtime secretary.)

3. Did Dowlut ever disclose his past to the bar? Several readers have asked if Dowlut disclosed his experience as a criminal defendant while applying for admission to the bar. (He was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1980 and is also a member of the Virginia Bar.) I don't know: Bar applications are confidential, and it's not clear what was asked on the character and fitness sections of the DC and Virginia Bar applications four decades ago. Currently, the DC Bar asks applicants to disclose all previous arrests, charges, and convictions, even for matters that have been dismissed or expunged. The Virginia Bar asks applicants to disclose any involvement in criminal proceedings (including juvenile cases and traffic offenses). Assuming that Dowlut faced similar questions when he became a lawyer, how did he respond?

4. What really happened 51 years ago in South Bend? The South Bend police still consider the murder of Anna Marie Yocum on the night of April 15, 1963, to be an open case. Most of the main characters involved in Dowlut's murder trial are dead; the victim's daughter is alive, but refused to speak with me. The court records I obtained, while voluminous, offer competing narratives that leave a trail of nagging questions: The police interviewed several other potential suspects—what were they asked, and why were they released? If Dowlut had no knowledge of the crime, how was he able to lead detectives to a buried gun allegedly linked to it? Whom did the gun belong to? And finally, what does Dowlut think actually happened on that night?