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US charges North Korean computer programmers in global hacks

Associated Press

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US charges North Korean computer programmers in global hacks

The Justice Department has charged three North Korean computer programmers in a broad range of global hacks, including a destructive attack targeting an American movie studio, and in the attempted theft and extortion of more than $1.3 billion from banks and companies, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The newly unsealed indictment builds off an earlier criminal case brought in 2018 and adds two additional North Korean defendants. Prosecutors identified all three as members of a North Korean military intelligence agency, accusing them of carrying out hacks at the behest of the government with a goal of using stolen funds for the benefit of the regime. Alarmingly to U.S. officials, the defendants worked at times from locations in Russia and China.

Law enforcement officials say the prosecution highlights the profit-driven motive behind North Korea’s criminal hacking, a contrast from other adversarial nations like Russia, China and Iran who are generally more interested in espionage, intellectual property theft or even disrupting democracy. As the U.S. announced its case against the North Koreans, the government was still grappling with hacks by Russia of federal agencies and private corporations that officials say was aimed at information-gathering.

“What we see emerging uniquely out of North Korea is trying to raise funds through illegal cyber activities,” including the theft of traditional currency and cryptocurrency, as well as cyber extortion schemes, said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official.

Because of North Korea’s economic system and sanctions imposed on the country, he added, “They use their cyber capabilities to try to get currency wherever they can do that, and that’s not something that we really see from actors in China or Russia or in Iran.”

This wanted poster released by the Department of Justice shows Kim Il, who prosecutors say is a member of a North Korean military intelligence agency and carried out hacks at the behest of the government with a goal of using pilfered funds for the benefit of the regime. The Justice Department has charged three North Korean computer programmers in a broad range of global and destructive hacks, including targeting banks and a movie studio. That’s according to a newly unsealed indictment. It builds off an earlier criminal case brought in 2018. The new cases adds two additional North Korean defendants. Prosecutors say all three programmers are members of a military intelligence agency of the North Korean government. (Department of Justice via AP)

None of the three defendants is in American custody, and though officials don’t expect them to travel to the U.S. anytime soon for prosecution, Justice Department officials in recent years have found value in indicting foreign government hackers — even in absentia — as a message that they are not anonymous and can be identified and implicated in crimes.

At the same time, prosecutors unsealed a plea deal with a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who investigators say organized the sophisticated laundering of millions of dollars in stolen funds. Ghaleb Alaumary, 37, of Ontario, Canada,agreed to plead guilty in Los Angeles to organizing teams of co-conspirators in the U.S. and Canada to launder funds obtained through various schemes.

The indictment unsealed Wednesday charges Jon Chang Hyok, Kim Il and Park Jin Hyok with crimes including conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud. Park was previously charged in 2018 in a criminal complaint linking him to the hacking team responsible for the hack of Sony Pictures and the WannaCry global ransomware attack, among other acts.

Besides naming two additional defendants beyond the original case, the new indictment also adds to the list of victims from around the world of hacks carried out by the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

The indictment accuses the hackers of participating in a conspiracy that attempted to steal more than $1.3 billion of money and cryptocurrency from banks and businesses, unleashed a sweeping ransomware campaign and targeted Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 in retaliation for a Hollywood movie, “The Interview,” that the North Korean government didn’t like because it depicted a fictionalized assassination of leader Kim Jong Un.

The indictment says the hackers engaged not just in cybertheft but also in “revenge-motivated computer attacks, at times executing commands “to destroy computer systems, deploy ransomware” or otherwise render victims’ computers inoperable.

“The scope of these crimes by the North Korean hackers is staggering,” said Tracy Wilkison, the acting U.S. Attorney in the Central District of California, where Sony Pictures is located and where the indictment was filed. “They are the crimes of a nation-state that has stopped at nothing to extract revenge and to obtain money to prop up its regime.”

Wilkison would not say how much money the hackers actually received. But the indictment does charge them in connection with a theft from Bangladesh’s central bank in 2016 involving wire transfers “totaling approximately $81 million to bank accounts in the Philippines and $20 million to a bank account in Sri Lanka,” and with multiple other multi-million-dollar ATM cashouts and cyber extortion schemes.

All told, the conspirators “attempted to steal or extort more than $1.3 billion,” according to the indictment.

To empty the cryptocurrency accounts of victims, the cyberthieves seeded malware posing as cryptocurrency-trading software on legitimate-seeming websites to trick victims, according to an alert published by the FBI and other U.S. agencies. Once infected, a victim’s computer could be entered and controlled by remote access. Later, hackers used other techniques including phishing and social engineering to infect victims’ computers.

WASHINGTON (AP) — By ERIC TUCKER

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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

Many Republican lawmakers have criticized governors’ emergency restrictions since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Now that most legislatures are back in session, a new type of pushback is taking root: misinformation.

In their own comments or by inviting skeptics to testify at legislative hearings, some GOP state lawmakers are using their platform to promote false information about the virus, the steps needed to limit its spread and the vaccines that will pull the nation out of the pandemic.

In some cases, the misstatements have faced swift backlash, even getting censored online. That’s raised tough questions about how aggressively to combat potentially dangerous misinformation from elected officials or during legislative hearings while protecting free speech and people’s access to government.

Last week, YouTube pulled down a video of committee testimony in the Ohio House after a witness inaccurately claimed COVID-19 wasn’t killing children. The platform said the video violated its community standards against the spread of misinformation.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology project, said YouTube went too far.

“When we’re talking about testimony that occurred at a public hearing, the far better response would be counterspeech, maybe in the form of fact-checking or labeling, rather than this attempt to flush it down the memory hole,” Wizner said.

But opposing voices aren’t always present in committee hearings.

In Michigan, for example, a House Oversight Committee meeting didn’t feature state health officials or other virus experts in a discussion about an extended pause on youth contact sports ordered by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

It did include Jayme McElvany, a virus skeptic who also has posted about the QAnon conspiracy and former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud. Founder of a group called Let Them Play, McElvany questioned mask mandates and the science behind state COVID-19 data during a legislative hearing that didn’t feature any witnesses from the other side. The committee chairman, Republican Rep. Steven Johnson, said the state health department was invited to testify but did not. Legislative Republicans have been challenging decisions of the Whitmer administration throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Wizner said such imbalances need to be highlighted, not suppressed.

“People need to know this is what passes for local government,” he said. When the hearings are posted online, YouTube owner Google has plenty of tools for flagging questionable information and directing people to facts, Wizner said.

In Tennessee, a Republican lawmaker is pushing legislation that would ban most government agencies from requiring anyone to get COVID-19 vaccines, which isn’t a mandate anywhere. Rep. Bud Hulsey has tried to drum up support downplaying the seriousness of the disease.

While testifying, he ticked off selective statistics that COVID-19 has a lower death rate among children and falsely alleged that the vaccines could cause genetic modifications.

Hulsey faced pushback from a fellow Republican, Rep. Sabi Kumar, a surgeon who has been a rare GOP advocate for proper mask-wearing while lawmakers gather at the Tennessee Capitol.

“The concern I have is that (the bill) creates an anti-vaccine attitude,” Kumar said.

Kumar pointed out that vaccines have saved countless lives throughout the centuries and repeatedly fact-checked Hulsey by emphasizing that the vaccines don’t change a person’s DNA.

Hulsey wasn’t convinced.

“People have seen governments all across this country do things that have never ever happened in the history of the United States, and it scares them,” he said. “They have every right to be afraid.”

His bill has advanced out of a House subcommittee.

In Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is fighting what he called a pattern of misrepresentations by state Sen. Lora Reinbold, a fellow Republican, saying he would no longer send members of his administration before her Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a scathing Feb. 18 letter that referenced her Facebook posts, Dunleavy accused Reinbold of misrepresenting the state’s COVID-19 response and deceiving the public.

“The misinformation must end,” the governor wrote.

Reinbold has been a vocal critic of Dunleavy issuing disaster declarations while the Legislature wasn’t in session. She has used her committee to amplify voices of those who question the effectiveness of masks and the effects of the government’s emergency response.

On social media, she characterized the Dunleavy administration as being “wild” over “these experimental” vaccines. At a hearing in early February, Reinbold questioned the extent to which the administration had suspended regulations during the pandemic.

“It’s almost like martial law,” she said.

The governor said that while he has tried to ease rules on businesses such as suspending fees, he’s never imposed martial law or forced Alaskans to get vaccines. Reinbold has called the governor’s criticism of her baseless.

“Some call ‘misinformation’ information they do not agree with or do not want to hear,” Reinbold said by email.

The dustup prompted intervention by the Senate president, who said he expected his committees to provide a “balanced approach.”

In Idaho, Rep. Heather Scott opened the legislative session in January by declaring, “The pandemic is over.” She said Idaho’s 1,600-plus COVID-19 deaths at that time amounted to “nowhere close to a pandemic.”

The average number of daily COVID-19 cases is falling in Idaho, but the death toll has risen.

During a live Zoom forum with constituents in mid-February, Scott criticized the National Governors Association, which last year issued a statement with tips for fighting misinformation about the virus. She alleged that the group is run by “globalists” at the World Economic Forum and that “they are the ones that came out with COVID.” The term “globalists” is widely considered to be an anti-Semitic slur.

Scott didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking clarification on what she meant.

Several of those who are spreading bogus virus information in legislatures also have supported Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

In Virginia, Republican Del. Dave LaRock, who attended the Trump rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, warned a state House Health committee in late January that COVID-19 vaccines couldn’t be trusted. He said they were especially risky for several communities, including the elderly and people of color.

Democratic Del. Cia Price, who is Black, called LaRock’s false claims “simply dangerous.”

“There is legitimate vaccine hesitancy in communities that the gentleman listed, but actual and factual information is key, not fanning the flames that are based on historic events,” she said.


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — By JULIE CARR SMYTH and BECKY BOHRER

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Twitter to let users charge followers to see premium posts

Associated Press

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Twitter to let users charge followers to see premium posts

Twitter is branching out from advertising to find more ways to make money — both for itself and for its most prolific users, whether those are businesses, celebrities or regular people.

In an investor presentation Thursday, the social media company announced a new feature called “Super Follows,” which will let users charge for extra, exclusive material not shown to their regular followers. This can include subscriber-only newsletters, videos, deals and discounts. Users would pay a monthly subscription fee to access the extra content.

Twitter users — and the company’s investors — have long been asking it to launch a subscription-based model. This as a growing number of internet creators and influencers use tools like Patreon, Substack and OnlyFans to make money from their online popularity.

The subscriptions will also allow Twitter to tap into a broader range of revenue sources in a world where online advertising is dominated by a Facebook-Google duopoly. Twitter did not detail what percentage of the revenue it would share with celebrities and others who sign up paying subscribers.

“Exploring audience funding opportunities like Super Follows will allow creators and publishers to be directly supported by their audience and will incentivize them to continue creating content that their audience loves,” the company said in a statement.

Super Follows is not available yet but Twitter says it will have “more to share” in the coming months. Another coming product, “Revue,” will let people publish paid or free newsletters to their audience. There’s also “Twitter Spaces,” a Clubhouse competitor that lets users participate in audio chats. It is currently in private beta testing, which means it’s not yet available to the general Twitter audience.

The San Francisco-based company also said its revenue goal for 2023 is more than $7.5 billion, more than double its 2020 revenue of $3.7 billion.


By BARBARA ORTUTAY

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Airline CEOs, Biden officials consider green-fuel breaks

Associated Press

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Airline CEOs, Biden officials consider green-fuel breaks

Chief executives of the nation’s largest passenger and cargo airlines met with key Biden administration officials Friday to talk about reducing emissions from airplanes and push incentives for lower-carbon aviation fuels.

The White House said the meeting with climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also touched on economic policy and curbing the spread of COVID-19 — travel has been a vector for the virus. But industry officials said emissions dominated the discussion.

United Airlines said CEO Scott Kirby asked administration officials to support incentives for sustainable aviation fuel and technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In December, United said it invested an undisclosed amount in a carbon-capture company partly owned by Occidental Petroleum.

A United Nations aviation group has concluded that biofuels will remain a tiny source of aviation fuel for several years. Some environmentalists would prefer the Biden administration to impose tougher emissions standards on aircraft rather than create breaks for biofuels.

“Biofuels are false solutions that don’t decarbonize air travel,” said Clare Lakewood, a climate-law official with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Real action on aircraft emissions requires phasing out dirty, aging aircraft, maximizing operational efficiencies and funding the rapid development of electrification.”

Airplanes account for a small portion of emissions that cause climate change — about 2% to 3% — but their share has been growing rapidly and is expected to roughly triple by mid-century with the global growth in travel.

The airline trade group says U.S. carriers have more than doubled the fuel efficiency of their fleets since 1978 and plan further reductions in carbon emissions. But the independent International Council on Clean Transportation says passenger traffic is growing nearly four times faster than fuel efficiency, leading to a 33% increase in emissions between 2013 and 2019.

The U.S. accounts for about 23% of aircraft carbon-dioxide emissions, followed by Europe at 19% and China at 13%, the transportation group’s researchers estimated.

The White House said McCarthy, Buttigieg and economic adviser Brian Deese were “grateful and optimistic” to hear the airline CEOs talk about current and future efforts to combat climate change.

Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, said the exchange was positive.

“Airlines are ready, willing and able partners, and we want to be part of the solution” to climate change, Calio said in a statement. “We stand ready to work in partnership with the Biden administration.”

By DAVID KOENIG.

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