The Smoke Eater For Jan. 14, 2020

Good morning, this is The Smoke Eater, for Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, and not everyone wants a backdoor, man.


Quick Hit

Iran tries to save face * The Middle East tries to move ahead *  Russia gets caught hacking (again) * 2020 Democrats are hurling rocks * SIM swapping is all the rage * A.G. Barr's cop fantasy needs to meet reality*

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Stuck In The Middle East With You

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is blaming rising tensions in the US and Iran for the downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 176 people, including 57 Canadian citizens. Iran has announced arrests in connection with the tragedy, and Iran's president Hassan Rouhani has called for "a special court with a ranking judge and dozens of experts."

In the wake of the unraveling Iranian nuclear deal, Britain, France and Germany are moving forward with possible sanctions on Iran. The three countries say they're triggering a "dispute mechanism" to address Iran's recent increase in uranium enrichment. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says, "Our goal is clear: we want to preserve the accord and come to a diplomatic solution within the agreement,” adding, “We will tackle this together with all partners in the agreement. We call on Iran to participate constructively in the negotiation process that is now beginning."

The AP reports young Iraqi's caught between the US and Iran are worried that hostilities could overshadow their own protests. Iraq has been facing a nationalist movement led by young people who've known nothing but conflict, and they want to tell everyone using their country as a proxy battlefield to piss off. Some fear Iranian-backed militias see protester's refusal to grieve for Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as a slight, and will use this as an excuse to attack civilians. One protestor tells the AP, "We are trying to be calm and study what is going on around us. We are telling everyone, stay with Iraq. This is not our war."

Facebook has been removing content in support of Soleimani across its platforms, which includes Instagram. The take downs were first spotted by Coda Story last week. Facebook says it has an appeals process, but anyone who's had to trudge through that mess usually describes it as a big blackhole of suck. Casey Newton points out that tech companies are usually more interested in covering their own respective asses from potential government regulation, and removing content from sanctioned regimes like Iran is complicated because the dragnet tends to suck up support for victims, political dissidents and journalists along with regime supporters. Instagram is one of the few social media platforms allowed by the secretive regime, and thus offers a rare window into a country that is otherwise unavailable.

Axios gossips that Israeli officials think Jared Kushner's mythical Middle East peace plan could drop sometime in March, just in time for the next round of Israeli elections, but Trumpland disputed that time frame. White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien tells Jonathan Swan they're "not focused" on the Israeli or Palestinian election calendars. O'Brien says the administration understands it won't be an easy processes, which seems like an understatement considering the Palestinian's have already rejected the proposal. In a related story, after a meeting the U.S. envoy to Israel, Benny Gantz, the rival to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, released a statement saying, "The contact with the Americans is good and important. I can’t elaborate on what was discussed with the U.S. envoy [Avi] Berkowitz. I can assume that in such an important issue [the release of the peace plan] the Americans will be very careful and would not publish it before the elections — because such a move would be a real and harsh interference in the electoral process in Israel. But obviously they are dealing with many other important issues, and I will not tell them what to do.”

“Russia, If You're Listening…”

Russia is being accused of trying to hack a Ukrainian energy company and help Donald Trump's electoral chances ... again. Area 1, a cyber security firm, has a report saying the GRU was attempting to spearphish employee at Burisma Holdings, an energy company connected to Trump's sprawling impeachment scandal. The report describes a pretty standard phishing scam: in November 2019 GRU operatives tried trick employees of Burisma's subsidiaries into entering email log-in credentials at spoofed websites controlled by the GRU. In addition, Area 1 has identified a campaign against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Area 1's CEO says the report "doesn’t make any claims as to what the intent of the hackers were, what they might have been looking for, what they are going to do with their success. We just point out that this is a campaign that’s going on." [Area 1 Report]

A Big Ball Of Cartoonish 2020 Violence

Anyone participating in Dry January may regret watching tonight's Democratic presidential debate. The surefire slug fest will feature Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and the super rich Tom Steyer. The six-candidate collision -- the final debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses -- is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET on CNN. The data nerds over at 538 have a bunch of infographics saying the horse race is wide open, with Politico noting the recent rock-filled mudslinging between candidates has the potential to create some real bruises and permanent scars. Political wizards are filling white space by asking useless questions about what topics will be dodged, like foreign policy and race, and avoiding introspective questions about America's fascination with Schadenfreude. NBC reminds us that everything could change next month, regardless of tonight's outcome, seeing as there’s three debates starting Feb. 7.

Jonathan Salant has a postmortem of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker's presidential campaign. Booker blames the demise of his 2020 presidential campaign on a lack of money, according to a statement released by the candidate. This lack of cash made it harder to compete against better funded rivals, which in turn lead to his failure to qualify for the last two debates, which then led to his low polling average, and so on. Nolan McCaskill writes in Politico that Booker borrowed Barack Obama's playbook and ran a campaign of love because that's part of who he is, even if it didn't resonate with voters. South Carolina state Rep. Annie McDaniel adds, "If he had come out acting like a bull in a china shop then they would’ve called him the angry black man."

The heap of semi-animate flesh we call former Republican Sen. Bob Dole is pointing his pen at Republican Rep. Roger Marshall to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Pat Roberts. McClatchy says this may be a sign Republicans have picked a surrogate to face former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the party's March 7. bloodsport.

The AJC has an interesting piece about the Senate elections in Georgia. With so many Democrats crowding into both races, there's likely be some infighting as candidates clamor for cash and attention in their respective attempts to oust two vulnerable Republican Senators.

OK, Corporate Boomers

State attorney's general are urging courts not to let Sprint and T-Mobile merge, arguing that the DOJ and FCC rubber stamped the merger without considering the harm it could cause to consumers. The states have included their own 15 month investigation that includes, "extensive document discovery, sworn testimony, and expert economic analyses." One telecom executive admitted under oath to the state AGs, "reducing price competition was one of the reasons for the T-Mobile-Sprint merger."

A new Princeton study has found that hackers are tricking telecom company desk jockeys into giving them access to their computers and using that to run SIM swapping scams. A fairly new pain in the ass, SIM swapping (in essence) lets techno jerks hijack a cellphone from the other side of the world, giving attackers access to your email, social media, banking apps, dick pics, etc. One attacker brags to Motherboard, "Some employees and managers are absolute brain dead and give us access to everything they own and that's when we start stealing." On Thursday Democratic legislators, led by Sen. Ron Wyden, sent FCC chair Ajit Pai a nastygram asking what he plans on doing to combat SIM swapping now that the pile of indictments is a mile high.

One More Thing...

U.S. Attorney General William Barr wants Apple to unlock the cellphone of a Saudi Air Force cadet accused of killing unarmed service members at a naval air station in Pensacola, FL. on Dec 2019. Barr says the cadet -- whom I'm purposely not naming -- "was motivated by jihadist ideology," and cited a social media post as evidence. Barr says Apple has provided no "substantial assistance."

Apple responded by rejecting Barr's comments, saying it works with law enforcement officials, including providing iCloud data. Apple's response is in line with its previous stance not to rewrite software specifically created to protect users from unauthorized access, and mirrors their stance during the 2016 San Bernadino shooting. That case was eventually dropped by the FBI after it reportedly found another way into the phone.

Barr has hemmed and hawed that encryption provides "law-free zones" for criminals, though civil liberties advocates with the ALCU contend, "There is no way to give the F.B.I. access to encrypted communications without giving the same access to every government on the planet."

For over a decade law enforcement officials have called on tech companies to provide some kind of backdoor that bypasses standard encryption software, like passwords. Officials have argued the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which forced telecom companies to redesign their networks so wiretapping was easier, sets a precedent for companies to aid investigators, and have pushed for it to be expanded (which it was in 2005). The FBI has repeatedly argued every few years that CALEA should include all online communications due to the risk of criminals "going dark."

Privacy advocates argue CALEA should not be expanded. The U.S. government has already had unfettered access to almost all forms of digital communications, and former NSA officials have admitted that it actually collects so much information that most of it is useless. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has expressed support for Apple, and said he hoped society could reach a technical and legislative solution, like controversial key escrow systems. Security experts will be quick to add say that any  backdoor is simply another entrance waiting to be exploited.

It's important to remember The Mueller Report says convicted former Trump officials -- who are either currently in prison, or awaiting sentencing -- were rather fond of using encrypted messaging software. Because of this, according to Mueller, evidence that may have involved current administration officials was unobtainable.

Seeing as how the administration is so fond obscuring transparency, I personally find Barr's arguments muddled. As a self-described Constitutional conservative, Barr could violate his own ethos by trying force a private business to bend to his will, but he potentially exposes the Trump administration to an incalculable host of direct and indirect legal challenges that he clearly hasn't thought through.

OK, now here's a warm and fuzzy critter video! BABY GORILLAS!

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