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US still unraveling ‘sophisticated’ hack of 9 gov’t agencies

Associated Press

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US still unraveling 'sophisticated' hack of 9 gov't agencies

U.S. authorities are still working to unravel the full scope of the likely Russian hack that gave the “sophisticated” actor behind the breach complete access to files and email from at least nine government agencies and about 100 private companies, the top White House cybersecurity official said Wednesday.

Anne Neuberger, the newly appointed deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, also warned that the danger has not passed because the hackers breached networks of technology companies whose products could be used to launch additional intrusions.

A task force is investigating the extent of the damage from the breach, assessing potential responses and trying to confirm the identity of whoever was behind it — a process Neuberger warned will take more time.

“This is a sophisticated actor who did their best to hide their tracks,” she told reporters at the White House. “We believe it took them months to plan and execute this compromise. It will take us some time to uncover this layer by layer.”

U.S. authorities have said the breach, disclosed in December, appeared to be the work of Russian hackers. Neuberger, a former senior official at the National Security Agency who was appointed by President Joe Biden this month, went no further.

“An advanced, persistent threat actor likely of Russian origin was responsible,” she said, without providing any further details and sounding a cryptic note on potential responses.

“This isn’t the only case of malicious cyber activity of likely Russian origin, either for us or for our allies and partners,” Neuberger added. “So, as we contemplate future response options, we are considering holistically what those activities were.”

The Russian government has denied involvement.

Private security company FireEye was first to identify the breach, revealing that hackers hijacked widely used network software from SolarWinds Inc. to install malicious software through a what appeared to be a routine security update.

Intelligence agencies did not detect the breach because they largely have “no visibility into private-sector networks,” and it was launched within the U.S., Neuberger said. The Biden administration supports changes to “culture and authorities” that prevented the hack from being detected on the federal civilian systems, she added.

The hack, Neuberger said, highlights the need to modernize the nation’s IT infrastructure and its cyber defenses, issues that will be addressed in an upcoming executive order from Biden aimed at addressing security and technology gaps highlighted by the breach.

Several agencies have acknowledged that they were breached, including the Treasury Department and Justice Department, but the full list has not been publicly released. Once inside, the hackers had full access to the victims’ data.

“The techniques that were used lead us to believe that any files or emails on a compromised network were likely to be compromised,” Neuberger said.

Some members of Congress have criticized the response based on what they have been told so far, all in private. “The briefings we have received convey a disjointed and disorganized response to confronting the breach,” Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, and Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican from Florida, said in a recent letter to the White House.

Neuberger said she intended to return to the Capitol to brief lawmakers in the coming days.


WASHINGTON (AP) — By BEN FOX

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Some GOP state lawmakers help spread COVID-19 misinformation

Associated Press

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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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