Cybersecurity Musings

Thanks to the ongoing Senate hearings on election hacking we are learning about how the Russians interfered with our presidential elections by sponsoring numerous fake social media accounts and even placing advertisements on Facebook, YouTube and Google that targeted people with interest on divisive issues.

But while policy makers are rightfully angered by these platforms’ inability to curb these attacks proactively, it is important to recognize that Facebook, Google, and even some web hosting services were mere vehicles providing a convenient platform for what was a much larger propaganda process made possible by the Internet’s Dark Triad: spearphishing, trolling, and fake news.

It is this trifecta that Vladimir Putin used to interfere with our elections as well elections in Germany and other parts of Europe. And it is this triad that we need to understand and stop.

At the tip of this triad is spearphishing—malware-laden email attachments and hyperlinks that when clicked provide the hacker backdoor access into an individual’s computers and networks. Every major attack from the Chinese military led theft of our F35 spy plane blueprints, to the infamous North Korea-led hack into Sony Pictures, to the Russian hacks into the DNC computers during our elections employed spearphishing. In fact, spearphishing attacks are so easy to craft that the Russians used the help of a 15-year old Canadian-Khazak citizen to conduct the attacks.

Anchoring the other end of the triad is organized trolling campaigns. What started with PR firms attempting to “manage” consumer reviews got co-opted by nation states to hijack online conversations by flooding message boards with vitriolic comments and counter-narratives. Confessions from “professional” trolls in Russia and investigative reports by the NYT’s Adrian Chen show how Russia’s state-sponsored Internet Research Agency orchestrates campaigns using phony social media profiles, interconnected networks of fake friends, even faked LiveJournal blogs for the profiles.

The final dark anchor is “fake news”—the latest form of online propaganda aimed at distorting information and spreading contrarian, even speculative views as real news. Enabling this phenomenon are some of the same phony social media profiles used for trolling along with pseudo “news” websites with seemingly credible names like The Conservative Frontline or The American Patriots, with a presence on multiple social media channels, many directly linked to Russian propaganda channels, providing the critical mass for a story to get noticed.

And as the stories are discussed by various groups the lies get crowd-sourced—arguments are strengthened, connections created, facts added—and quickly the fake news morphs into another more sensational story, spinning further news cycles. Some fake news and trolling campaigns link back to phishing websites, leading to still more breaches and even more fake news.

This was how the Russians influenced our elections. By hacking DNC emails, leaking it via WikiLeaks, and then seeding divisive political arguments, counter narratives, and conspiracy theories through fake news websites and trolling campaigns—such as pointing to the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich in 2016 as evidence of his involvement in the hack—the Russians made many among us question our democratic processes that ultimately influenced the elections.

Unfortunately, our collective focus today is on organizations like Facebook and Twitter, who have reacted by creating task forces that curate internal lists of fake profiles and identify fake news feeds. Others like,, and the BBC have likewise developed internal task forces that curate lists of fake news and sites. But these initiatives only address small parts of the triad—its trees—and does nothing to stop the forest that is the triad from propagating using a different platform during the next election cycle.

What we need instead is a mechanism to stop the triad completely.

And this can be done because the triad has an Achilles: it is highly coordinated. Attacks usually reuse the same, finite set of social media profiles, web domains, fake news websites, email accounts, and even malware. In fact, the reuse of email profiles and malware signatures was our basis for identifying the source of the DNC hack as being Russian intelligence.

We can thus stop the triad if we develop mechanisms to track such coordination. But this will require a unification of efforts on our end, not the diversified approaches currently in place.

This must begin by the development of a centralized breach reporting system where individuals and organizations can report suspected spearphishing attacks and get remedial help. Such a system could help track attacks and serve as an early warning system to other organizations, who can take effective counter measures to stop further breaches.

A similar mechanism could help stop organized trolling and the propagation of fake news. Rather than the internal policing efforts now being done covertly within social media organizations, what we need is a centralized repository—a WikiFacts page of sorts— where fake profiles, news, and suspicious data from different media websites are continuously reported, flagged, and publicly displayed. This information can be populated by social media organizations, search engines, as well as by user reports. Such a system would directly benefit the general public, who can report and review suspicious information; it can also help smaller media organizations who could directly use this intelligence to forestall any misuse of their platforms.

The Dark triad is a dystopian version of the game of telephone played online using hacked information and fake news. Ironically, the origins of this game can be traced to a medieval game in which players wrote stories that got increasingly distorted as people passed it along—a game called Russian Scandal. Only this scandal is for real.

As eager customers meet the new iPhone, they’ll explore the latest installment in Apple’s decade-long drive to make sleeker and sexier phones. But to me as a scholar of cybersecurity, these revolutionary innovations have not come without compromises.

Early iPhones literally put the “smart” in the smartphone, connecting texting, internet connectivity and telephone capabilities in one intuitive device. But many of Apple’s decisions about the iPhone were driven by design – including wanting to be different or to make things simpler – rather than for practical reasons.

Many of these innovations – some starting in the very first iPhone – became standards that other device makers eventually followed. And while Apple has steadily strengthened the encryption of the data on its phones, other developments have made people less safe and secure.

The lights went out

Among Apple’s earliest design decisions was to exclude an incoming email indicator light – the little blinking LED that was common in many smartphones in 2007. LEDs could be programmed to flash differently, even using different colors to indicate whom an incoming email was from. That made it possible for people to be alerted to new messages – and decide whether to ignore them or respond – from afar.

Its absence meant that the only way for users of the iPhone to know of unread messages was by interacting with the phone’s screen – which many people now do countless times each day, in hopes of seeing a new email or other notification message. In psychology, we call this a “variable reinforcement mechanism” – when rewards are received at unpredictable intervals – which is the basis for how slot machines in Las Vegas keep someone playing.

This new distraction has complicated social interactions and makes people physically less safe, causing both distracted driving and even inattentive walking.

Email loses its head, literally

Another problem with iOS Mail is a major design flaw: It does not display full email headers – the part of each message that tells users where the email is coming from. These can be viewed on all computer-based email programs – and shortened versions are available on Android email programs.

Cybersecurity awareness trainers regularly tell users to always review header data to assess an email’s legitimacy. But this information is completely unavailable on Apple iOS Mail – meaning even if you suspect a spear-phishing email, there is really no way to detect it – which is another reason that more people fall victim to spear-phishing attacks on their phones than on their computers.

Safari gets dangerous

The iOS web browser is another casualty of iOS’s minimalism, because Apple designers removed important security indicators. For instance, all encrypted websites – where the URL displays that little lock icon next to the website’s name – possess an encryption certificate. This certificate helps verify the true identity of a webpage and can be viewed on all desktop computer browsers by simply clicking on the lock icon. It can also be viewed on the Google Chrome browser for iOS by simply tapping on the lock icon.

But there is no way to view the certificate using the iPhone’s Safari – meaning if a webpage appears suspicious, there is no way to verify its authenticity.

Everyone knows where you stand

A major iPhone innovation – building in high-quality front and back cameras and photo-sharing capabilities – has completely changed how people capture and display their memories and helped drive the rise of social media. But the iPhone’s camera captures more than just selfies.

The iPhone defaults to including in each image file metadata with the date, time and location details – latitude and longitude – where the photo was taken. Most users remain unaware that most online services include this information in posted pictures – making it possible for anyone to know exactly where the photograph someone just shared was taken. A criminal could use that information to find out when a person is not at home and burglarize the place then, as the infamous Hollywood “Bling Ring” did with social media posts.

In the 10 years since the first iPhone arrived, cyberattacks have evolved and the cybersecurity stakes are higher for individuals. The main concern used to be viruses targeting corporate networks; now the biggest problem is attackers targeting users directly using spear-phishing emails and spoofed websites.

Today, unsafe decisions are far easier to make on your phone than on your computer. And more people now use their phones for doing more things than ever before. Making phones slimmer, shinier and sexier is great. But making sure every user can make cybersafe decisions is yet to be “Designed by Apple.” Here’s hoping the next iPhone does that.