Security

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine

There are a plethora of sources available to cover the conflict in Ukraine, but I think that two in particular are worth noting. First, the Oryx blog uses open source intelligence to track hardware losses. It’s based in the Netherlands, and is so effective that I have the feeling that even governments rely upon it. The blog also covers issues such as which European nations are donating equipment to Ukraine. If you are interested in objective information about Russian losses, or equipment donations, this is the source for you.

This conflict has also seen an unprecedented information war, one which Ukraine has certainly been winning. In my opinion, the best analysis of open source intelligence is Bellingcat. This blog provides critical thinking and research related to digital issues, but in the case of Ukraine it also provides key data on military events. If you only want to follow a couple of blogs to learn more about the conflict, these are the top two that I would suggest.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Photo by Chuanchai Pundej on Unsplash

Russia’s strange war in Ukraine

I’d like to share a few resources regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Australian broadcasting corporation has a beautiful storyboard that examines why the Russian military forces seem to be stalling, although it’s very early in the invasion. The “Good Times Bad Times” YouTube channel covers recent events in the conflict, such as the immense economic costs that Russia is paying, and the start of negotiations. I appreciate that the channel looks at information critically, such as the legend of the ghost of Kiev.

What is clear is that Russia has neither conquered major urban centers, nor achieved air dominance; it’s planes can no longer fly over Europe; the Russian stock market has plunged, and the rubles’ value is crashing. Ukraine is rallying its population and resources. Europe is providing major military resources to Ukraine, while turning away from Russian energy. What is remarkable is that there now is serious discussion of having Ukraine join the European Union. Even Switzerland is following Europe’s lead on financial sanctions. It is difficult to unite Europe. But with the possible exception of Hungary, Russia seems to have both alienated its major energy customers, while leading Europe -particularly Germany- to pay huge amounts to strengthen their military forces. Whatever happens now in Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Russia could have done more to undermine its national interests so quickly. It’s a strange war.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Health care and Cyber-attacks

An Opte Project visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, one of the most common cyberattacks is upon health care centers, particularly ransom-ware attacks upon hospitals. While digital records and telemedicine are proving essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals’ reliance upon digital resources also make our health care systems vulnerable to attack. As this article by Jocelinn Kang and Tom Uren says, cyber-defense efforts now need to prioritize our health care systems.

If you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Turkey’s strikes in Syria

“Chest X-rays, 3D Image of lungs, Sagital Plane Image” by Praisaeng at freedigitalphotos.net

With the COVID-19 pandemic rampant, it’s easy to forget that other world events are still taking place, and with good reason. No other events now matter as much. Even so, after 33 of its soldiers were killed by the Syrian military (or perhaps by a Russian airstrike) last month, the Turkish government launched a devastating counterstrike against the Syrian military on February 27, 2020. The use of drones and other technology simply overwhelmed the Syrian armed forces, and let to the destruction of even the most sophisticated Russian equipment, such as the Pantsir anti-air systems. As usual, the Oryx blog has the best information. The list of destroyed military equipment on this website is striking. For example, the Syrians likely lost 32 tanks, which they could ill afford, and eight aircraft (mostly helicopters). …

The South China Sea

Are you looking for an online resource that students might use to quickly understand the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbors? You could do much worse than this brief video that was shared on Twitter. I know that we sometimes think of Twitter as the host for emotional oversharing, Russian bots and disinformation campaigns, but @9DashLine and @SCS_news are good feeds to follow if you want to keep abreast of the latest information on the South China Sea issue.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Facebook, Twitter and Security

Image of globe on light, Arts Building, McGill University. Photo by Smallman

Last quarter I was  teaching a fully online course Digital Globalization, while this quarter I am teaching an online class on Cyber-warfare and espionage. In these courses we cover topics such as  Snowden, Wikileaks, Anonymous, white and black hat hackers, NSA, zero day exploits, the Panama Papers and the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What’s interesting is the division within my students regarding privacy. There are a minority of students who are unconcerned about the issue because they feel that if they haven’t done anything wrong, why should they worry? But there is a much larger group of students who feel that this is a significant anxiety in their lives. Although they worry about the government tracking their activities, they are even more concerned about how their lives are tracked by businesses. Every time they go on social media, have a sensitive conversation near Google Home or Alexa, or text message a friend, they wonder a little about how their digital lives make them vulnerable.

Whats amazing is how little security is built into many online platforms. But few platforms have faced as much criticism as Facebook. To help understand why, you might read this post by Krebs on Security: Facebook Stored Hundreds of Millions of User Passwords in Plain Text for Years. As the article explains, this meant that Facebook’s employees could have accessed peoples’ accounts over a very long period, although Facebook says there is no evidence that they did. Since people often reuse passwords, this was a terrible security breach. Facebook is key to many peoples’ social lives. But given its flaws, it’s worth remembering never to reuse passwords, especially with Facebook. It also wouldn’t hurt, to enable two-factor authentication on key accounts (such as your bank), and always use a VPN on public wifi.

Of course Facebook isn’t the only social media tool that has security vulnerability. One of the best ways to keep in touch with digital issues is through Wired magazine, which had a recent article
Twitter Insiders Allegedly Spied for Saudi Arabia. In this case, what happened was that two employees were able to access accounts, and to pass on this information to Saudi Arabia. Social media is a wonderful tool. But one of the key concepts in my digitally focused classes is that there is no absolute privacy online, only relative privacy. This fact cannot be escaped by using the Dark Web, as the Egotistical Giraffe exploit with TOR showed. Remember what happened on the Silk Road with the Dread Pirate Roberts (yes, named after a character in the movie, the Princess Bride). Even the most savvy digital user leaves breadcrumbs. No software tool, VPN, or hardware can elide this fact. And in the age of the Internet Archive, nothing online truly disappears. This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be a wonderful tool. But its worth remembering when you use social media to convey sensitive information, or politically loaded content. And we collectively need to hold the giant social media companies (as well as as other corporations with data, including health records)  to account for lax security. And if you can bear it, just delete Facebook.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Iran, history and War

Last Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers traveling in the Gulf of Oman were struck by explosions. The crews of both ships were quickly evacuated, and there was no loss of life onboard. The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly announced that Iran was responsible for these strikes. The U.S. government released military footage that it said showed an Iranian ship removing a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers. There had been an attack on four other tankers within the last month. The U.S. alleged that Iran was carrying out these assaults because of U.S. pressure regarding the nuclear deal. …

Mexico and Safety

Panoramica Bahia de Acapulco. By Microstar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Date rape drugs are a problem in many different nations. A recent article in USA Today, however, reveals systemic issues at Mexican resorts. Raquel Rutledge’s well-researched piece, “Mother’s nightmare at Mexico resort: ‘There is more to this deeper, darker story than we know,'” reveals the inability or unwillingness of Mexican authorities to investigate the use of date rape drugs at these resorts. On a personal note, about six months ago I heard a second hand account from one of my students, who described a case of a husband and wife, in which the wife was raped after they were both given a date-rape drug. I can’t know if this story is true, since I did not speak to one of the people who were drugged. But what was disturbing to me about this particularly story was that this case allegedly took place not in a resort, but rather in a restaurant in Mexico City. Again, this story was not first-hand, and I cannot attest to its veracity. Still, Rutledge’s piece suggests that travelers to Mexico should exercise caution, and that Mexican authorities should thoroughly investigate all such cases, which should include medical examinations for rape, and blood testing to identify the drugs used.

Curious to read more about drugs in Mexico? You can also read this post. I also recommend this Propublica piece “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico” by Ginger Thompson, which covers this topic in much greater depth than my initial blog post.

Shawn Smallman, 2018.

Russian Hackers

I believe that in a 100 years people will believe that digital globalization was as an important a trend in the twenty-first century as financial, political and economic globalization. Cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, cyber-currencies, the sharing economy, drones and robotics are fundamentally reshaping our world. In this context, hackers have become not only a security threat but also part of pop culture. But how do hacker’s themselves think about their culture and their activities? You can learn more by watching the BBC program, “The Hackers of Siberia,” which focuses on the “SiBears” of Siberia.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Bioterrorism and Cocaine

“A beautiful landscape of Mendoza City’s park seen from the height of the Gómez building.” By Itsmemarttin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mat Youkee has a fascinating article, “Who Killed the Nazi Scientist trying to Wipe out Cocaine,” on the online site Ozy. The piece tells the story of Heinz Brücher, who had served as a second lieutenant in the German military (S.S.) during World War Two. A biologist, Brücher had stolen a Ukrainian seed-bank on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Later in the war, he disobeyed orders to destroy these seeds, and fled the Reich with them. As with other German military figures at the war’s end, he fled to Argentina, as part of an evacuation which has become a theme in popular culture from film to conspiracy theories. He did not stay in Argentina only, however, but also taught as a faculty member everywhere from Venezuela to Paraguay. Later in life, though, he wound up living in a farm house in Mendoza, Argentina, where he seems to have hatched an incredible plot: to destroy the coca plant that is the basis for the cocaine trade.

The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in the Andes. One can see ancient indigenous sculptures in which the cheek of one figure is extended, because the person is chewing coca. The leaf figures in ritual and religion, but is also a rich source of nutrition.Throughout Latin America coca tea is often used as an infusion because it is supposed to have medicinal properties. The leaf itself is vastly different from the processed drug known as cocaine. In 1898 a German chemist, Richard Martin Willstätter, created cocaine, which had become one of the most used drugs in the world. By the 1970s and 80s, cocaine was the basis for the cartels of Colombia. At the same time, there were allegations that the U.S. intelligence services were themselves involved in the cocaine trade in order to fund the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

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