Ask Bob Rankin
Just before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, NBC aired a story claiming that all visitors toting smartphones or laptops to Sochi with would be 'immediately hacked' and exposed to an array of horrors. Turns out the story was fabricated, but why? Read on...
Will Evil Russian Hackers Steal Your Data?
One of the game-changing benefits of our Internet-connected world is that it’s much more difficult to get away with lying. Too many observers with too much expertise are available to catch and call you out on a lie. One would think that a foreign correspondent for a major television network would be well aware of this fact and avoid lying.
But apparently, Richard Engel of NBC News has been living under a rock for the past two decades; or maybe he and his cronies mistakenly believe the rest of us are stupid.
On February 4, 2014, NBC aired a story by Engel that warned the whole world to avoid bringing "electronic devices" to Russia, specifically to the Olympics in the town of Sochi. According to Engel, the moment one connects to the Internet in Russia, hackers will pounce and "help themselves" to your data, contacts, banking information and photos.
NBC Olympic Hacking Fraud
They’ll also listen in on every phone call you make and do Heaven knows what damage with what they hear. Brian Williams, the anchorman, closes out the segment with, "Richard Engel, in Sochi…," reinforcing the story’s message that Sochi is a dangerous place to be, from a cyber security standpoint.
Problem is, Engel wasn’t in Sochi; he was in Moscow, over a thousand miles from Sochi. It’s possible that the anchorman just made a slip of the tongue. But this wasn’t some amateurish rural network affiliate; it was NBC Nightly News, which can afford to hire seasoned professionals who rarely make bloopers. It seems more likely this "mistake" was a deliberate lie designed to cast aspersions upon Sochi and discourage people from going there. Why would Engel, Williams and NBC want to do that?
Revenge is one possibility. Journalists from all over the world have been complaining very publicly about poor accommodations in Sochi; and they are pretty appalling, or funny depending on whether you’re there or not: half-finished hotel rooms, non-functioning toilets, brown tap water, dogs running loose in the halllways, etc.
The point is that many Sochi journalists and their pals were piqued at the Russians, so it’s plausible that one or more of them decided to get even with a hatchet job on the perils of hacking in Russia. The only other explanation I can think of is sensationalism and desperation for a ratings boost. An organization like NBC News surely has the staff to do some basic technical fact checking. So the likelihood that this story was deliberately fabricated (for whatever reason) seems almost certain.
Peacocks and Poppycock
You would think that elite professional journalists would be above such shenanigans, but you’d be wrong. NBC is the same network that was caught in 1993 rigging a GM truck’s gas tank to explode in order to "prove" that GM trucks’ gas tanks were prone to explode. To get the gas tank to explode, NBC installed remotely-ignited model rocket engines in it!
Ironically, Engel was busted by the same security consultant who helped him set up this experiment: Kyle Wilhoit blogged the following after the Engel hatchet job aired:
"First, all the attacks required some kind of user interaction. Whether to execute ‘applications’ or to open a Microsoft Word document, all the attacks shown required user interaction in order to compromise the device."
It turns out that the security settings on Engel's Android phone were deliberately changed to permit downloads from sketchy third-party app stores, and that a malicious app was knowingly installed. As for the laptops, Engel admitted in another interview that he deliberately clicked on malicious popups and phishing emails to give an open door to the attackers.
"Second, these attacks could happen anywhere. They would not just happen in Moscow, nor did it require us to be in Moscow. Whether those attacks occur while you are sitting in a coffee shop in Berlin, or your home in Tokyo, these types of attacks can and do occur, on a worldwide scale."
The interesting point here wasn't that the hacks took place in Russia. The fact that NBC didn't mention was that Engel's device was compromised by virtue of visiting rogue Olympic-themed websites, which can be accessed by anyone, from anywhere in the world.
"Third, the infections occurred on newly unboxed hardware. Had basic security precautions such as updating the operating system or not opening emails from unrecognized sources been done, these attacks could have been prevented."
Bottom line: While all three devices looked like they had been compromised with no user interactions, that was just not the case. Incorrect impressions may have been formed due to the editing process; and all infections required plenty of risky behavior to succeed. Engel's laptop was deliberately left unpatched and unprotected. Further, he purposefully took actions to make it easy for his smartphone and laptop to be compromised.
There are plenty of dangers online, but there is nothing particularly dangerous about Russia or Sochi. To get hacked there, or anywhere, you simply have to work at being stupid and/or careless. To air a story that omits relevant information (i.e., no security software or patches on any machines, disabling built-in Android security, actively enabling downloads of malware) in order to imply otherwise is simply a lie.