Wiring the Planet – 1993

Thanks to Patrick Kroupa for keeping this story alive online – From a package I wrote introducing folks to an erstewhile invention of the military-industrial complex _ later hijacked by telecommunications conglomerates and the micro-targeting advertising industry _  called the Internet:

Wiring the Planet — MindVox!

Sunday, May 23, 1993

By Frank Bajak

Somewhere in the ether and silicon that unite two workstations 11 floors above lower Broadway, denizens of the cyberpunk milieu are feverishly debating whether anyone in government can be trusted. Elsewhere amid the colliding electrons, people read a rock musician’s rage about the computer information service that somehow obtained and posted his lyrics without permission. This is the 12-by-20-foot bare-walled home of MindVox, today’s recreation hall for the new lost generation’s telecomputing crowd. You can enter by phone line or directly off Internet.

Patrick Kroupa and Bruce Fancher are the proprietors, self-described former Legion of Doom telephone hackers who cut the cord with computing for a time after mid-1980s teen-age shenanigans. But back they came, deciding to take the code-writing prowess of their circle, write some real idiot proof software” on top of a Unix operating system and build a primo thoughtspace for meetings of minds. ‘We just saw that a lot of interesting technologies were not being used for anything but file-servers,’ says Kroupa, describing the thousands of dial-up bulletin board systems in which callers often find little more than downloads of software and dirty pictures.

Kroupa is a towering 25-year-old high school dropout in a black leather jacket with long hair gathered under a gray bandanna, three earrings and a hearty laugh. “America online looks pretty, but is pretty devoid of intellectual content,” Kroupa says of the popular information service. His chronicle of an angst-ridden odyssey from an adolescent hacker known as ‘Lord Digital, to cyberspace saloon-keeper is suggested reading for MindVox newcomers. Fancher is 22 and more businesslike, but equally in love with this dream he left Tufts University for.

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APNewsBreak: US cites cellphone spying devices in DC

For the first time, the U.S. government has publicly acknowledged the existence in Washington of what appear to be rogue devices that foreign spies and criminals could be using to track individual cellphones and intercept calls and messages.

stingray

The use of what are known as cellphone-site simulators by foreign powers has long been a concern, but American intelligence and law enforcement agencies — which use such eavesdropping equipment themselves — have been silent on the issue until now.

In a March 26 letter to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that last year it identified suspected unauthorized cell-site simulators in the nation’s capital. The agency said it had not determined the type of devices in use or who might have been operating them. Nor did it say how many it detected or where.

The agency’s response, obtained by The Associated Press from Wyden’s office, suggests little has been done about such equipment, known popularly as Stingrays after a brand common among U.S. police departments. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the nation’s airwaves, formed a task force on the subject four years ago, but it never produced a report and no longer meets regularly.

The devices work by tricking mobile devices into locking onto them instead of legitimate cell towers, revealing the exact location of a particular cellphone. More sophisticated versions can eavesdrop on calls by forcing phones to step down to older, unencrypted 2G wireless technology. Some attempt to plant malware.

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Hurricane Harvey’s toxic impact deeper than public told

HOUSTON (AP) — A toxic onslaught from the nation’s petrochemical hub was largely overshadowed by the record-shattering deluge of Hurricane Harvey as residents and first responders struggled to save lives and property.

More than a half-year after floodwaters swamped America’s fourth-largest city, the extent of this environmental assault is beginning to surface, while questions about the long-term consequences for human health remain unanswered.Panther-Creek-Galena-Park-web

County, state and federal records pieced together by The Associated Press and The Houston Chronicle reveal a far more widespread toxic impact than authorities publicly reported after the storm slammed into the Texas coast in late August and then stalled over the Houston area.

Some 500 chemical plants, 10 refineries and more than 6,670 miles of intertwined oil, gas and chemical pipelines line the nation’s largest energy corridor.

Nearly half a billion gallons of industrial wastewater mixed with storm water surged out of just one chemical plant in Baytown, east of Houston on the upper shores of Galveston Bay.

Benzene, vinyl chloride, butadiene and other known human carcinogens were among the dozens of tons of industrial toxic substances released into surrounding neighborhoods and waterways following Harvey’s torrential rains.

In all, reporters catalogued more than 100 Harvey-related toxic releases — on land, in water and in the air. Most were never publicized, and in the case of two of the biggest ones, the extent or potential toxicity of the releases was initially understated.

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Houston Chronicle version:  https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/In-Houston-and-beyond-Harvey-s-spills-leave-a-12771237.php

APNewsBreak: Georgia election server wiped after suit filed

A computer server crucial to a lawsuit against Georgia election officials was quietly wiped clean by its custodians just after the suit was filed, The Associated Press has learned.

The server’s data was destroyed July 7 by technicians at the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University, which runs the state’s election system. The data wipe was revealed in an email sent last week from an assistant state attorney general to plaintiffs in the case that was later obtained by the AP. More emails obtained in a public records request confirmed the wipe.

The lawsuit, filed July 3 by a diverse group of election reform advocates, aims to force Georgia to retire its antiquated and heavily criticized election technology. The server in question, which served as a statewide staging location for key election-related data, made national headlines in June after a security expert disclosed a gaping security hole that wasn’t fixed six months after he reported it to election authorities.

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Fence-line residents sickened by Harvey pollution spike

GALENA PARK, Texas (AP) — Cindy Sanchez began to feel ill while barbecuing just before Harvey’s torrents started pelting this city just east of Houston, along a corridor with the nation’s highest concentration of petrochemical plants.

“I started getting really, really bad headaches,” said Sanchez, a 32-year-old housewife. “I never get headaches.”

“My husband’s eyes were burning,” she said. “He actually had a napkin that was wet over his eyes.” The sewage-like stench chased the couple indoors and Sanchez, sick to her stomach, lay down.

People complained of headaches, nausea, itchy skin and throats — classic symptoms of industrial chemical exposure — as plants and refineries raced to burn off compounds that could combust in extreme weather or power loss.

Petrochemical corridor residents say air that is bad enough on normal days got worse as Harvey crashed into the nation’s fourth-largest city and then yielded the highest ozone pollution so far this year anywhere in Texas. The Houston metro area was ranked 12th in the nation for worst ozone pollution by The American Lung Association this year, although its air was better than the Los Angeles and New York regions.PRSIpostharvey

Plants owned by Shell, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and other industry giants reported more than 1.5 million pounds (680 metric tons) of extraordinary emissions over eight days beginning Aug. 23 to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality in Harris County, which encompasses Houston. That amounted to 61 percent of this year’s largely unpermitted emissions for the county and five times the amount released in the same period in 2016. Of the known carcinogens released during Harvey, more than 13 tons were benzene. Inhaling it can cause dizziness and even unconsciousness and long-term exposure can trigger leukemia.

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AP Exclusive: Colombia ‘panic buttons’ expose activists

By FRANK BAJAK

It is supposed to help protect human-rights activists, labor organizers and journalists working in risky environments, but a GPS-enabled “panic button” that Colombia’s government has issued to about 400 people could be exposing them to more peril.

The pocket-sized devices are designed to notify authorities in the event of an attack or attempted kidnapping. But the Associated Press, with an independent security audit , uncovered technical flaws that could let hostile parties disable them, eavesdrop on conversations and track users’ movements.

There is no evidence the vulnerabilities have been exploited, but security experts are alarmed.

“This is negligent in the extreme,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, calling the finding “a tremendous security failure.”
Over the past four years, other “distress alarms” and smartphone apps have been deployed or tested around the world, with mixed results. When effective, they can be crucial lifelines against criminal gangs, paramilitary groups or the hostile security forces of repressive regimes.

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Americans who live near border say Trump’s wall is unwelcome

By FRANK BAJAK

Nov. 22, 2016

LOS EBANOS, Texas (AP) — All along the winding Rio Grande, the people who live in this bustling, fertile region where the U.S. border meets the Gulf of Mexico never quite understood how Donald Trump’s great wall could ever be much more than campaign rhetoric.

Erecting a concrete barrier across the entire 1,954-mile frontier with Mexico, they know, collides head-on with multiple realities: the geology of the river valley, fierce local resistance and the immense cost.

An electronically fortified “virtual wall” with surveillance technology that includes night-and-day video cameras, tethered observation balloons and high-flying drones makes a lot more sense to people here. It’s already in wide use and expanding.

 If a 30- to 40-foot concrete wall is a panacea for illegal immigration, as Trump insisted during the campaign, the locals are not convinced. And few were surprised when the president-elect seemed to soften his position five days after the election, saying that the wall could include some fencing.

“The wall is not going to stop anyone,” said Jorge Garcia, who expected to lose access to most of his 30-acre riverside ranch after the U.S. Border Fence Act was enacted a decade ago.

Under the law, 652 miles of border barrier were built, mostly in Arizona. The 110 miles of fences and fortified levees that went up in Texas are not contiguous but broken lines, some as much as a mile and a half from the river.

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Aging, rickety U.S. elections system vulnerable to hacking

 

By FRANK BAJAK AND MICHAEL RUBINKAM

Dec. 26, 2016

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Jill Stein’s bid to recount votes in Pennsylvania was in trouble even before a federal judge shot it down Dec. 12. That’s because the Green Party candidate’s effort stood almost no chance of detecting potential fraud or error in the vote — there was basically nothing to recount.

Pennsylvania is one of 11 states where the majority of voters use antiquated machines that store votes electronically, without printed ballots or other paper-based backups that could be used to double-check the balloting. There’s almost no way to know if they’ve accurately recorded individual votes — or if anyone tampered with the count.

More than 80 percent of Pennsylvanians who voted Nov. 8 cast their ballots on such machines, according to VotePA, a nonprofit seeking their replacement. A recount would, in the words of VotePA’s Marybeth Kuznik, a veteran election judge, essentially amount to this: “You go to the computer and you say, ‘OK, computer, you counted this a week-and-a-half ago. Were you right the first time?'”

 These paperless digital voting machines, used by roughly 1 in 5 U.S. voters last month, present one of the most glaring dangers to the security of the rickety, underfunded U.S. election system. Like many electronic voting machines, they are vulnerable to hacking. But other machines typically leave a paper trail that could be manually checked. The paperless digital machines open the door to potential election rigging that might not ever be detected.

What’s more, their prevalence magnifies other risks in the election system, such as the possibility that hackers might compromise the computers that tally votes, by making failures or attacks harder to catch. And like other voting machines adopted since the 2000 election, the paperless systems are nearing the end of their useful life — yet there is no comprehensive plan to replace them.

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Snapping up cheap spy tools, nation ‘monitoring everyone’

By FRANK BAJAK and JACK GILLUM

LIMA, Peru — It was a national scandal. Peru’s then-vice president accused two domestic intelligence agents of staking her out. Then, a top congressman blamed the spy agency for a break-in at his office. News stories showed the agency had collected data on hundreds of influential Peruvians.

Yet after last year’s outrage, which forced out the prime minister and froze its intelligence-gathering, the spy service went ahead with a $22 million program capable of snooping on thousands of Peruvians at a time. Peru — a top cocaine-producing nation — joined the ranks of world governments that have added commercial spyware to their arsenals.area de trabajo

The purchase from Israeli-American company Verint Systems, chronicled in documents obtained by The Associated Press, offers a rare, behind-the-scenes look into how easy it is for a country to purchase and install off-the-shelf surveillance equipment. The software allows governments to intercept voice calls, text messages and emails.

Except for blacklisted nations like Syria and North Korea, the is little to stop governments that routinely violate basic rights from obtaining the same so-called “lawful intercept” tools that have been sold to Western police and spy agencies. People tracked by the technology have been beaten, jailed and tortured, according to human rights groups.

Targets identified by the AP include a blogger in the repressive Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, opposition activists in the war-ravaged African nation of South Sudan, and politicians and reporters in oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

“The status quo is completely unacceptable,” said Marietje Schaake, a European Union lawmaker pushing for greater oversight. “The fact that this market is almost completely unregulated is very disturbing.”

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From happy-go-lucky, gregarious soldier to purposeful cop killer: Micah’s journey

DALLAS (AP) — He was disarmed in the middle of a war zone and placed under 24-hour escort. The most humiliating part was that everyone in Micah Johnson’s unit in Afghanistan knew why: He was accused of stealing a female soldier’s panties.

Johnson’s aspirations to a military career were over. Now he faced removal from the Army. The well-liked, easygoing young black man whose friendships were described as colorblind was suddenly deeply shamed and ostracized.

People who knew him, both before and after, say he was never the same.

 Authorities have described Johnson as a loner who shot and killed five officers in downtown Dallas during last week’s peaceful protest over police shootings nationwide. President Barack Obama, at a memorial for the victims, called him “demented.”
But in multiple interviews with The Associated Press, the Mississippi-born, Texas-bred 25-year-old was remembered by friends, comrades and acquaintances as a gregarious, even “goofy” extrovert.

Johnson wasn’t the best marksman, a fellow Army Reserve buddy recalled, and his former squad leader described him as less than motivated during training. But in Dallas, he showed striking tactical effectiveness, video from the scene shows. He moved stealthily, used columns for cover and swiveled his head to watch corners for threats.

Such was his skill that police initially thought they were taking fire from multiple snipers.

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