Monday, February 19, 2018

After Florida School Shooting, Russian ‘Bot’ Army Pounced

SAN FRANCISCO — One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate.

The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., many of those accounts had been focused on the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“This is pretty typical for them, to hop on breaking news like this,” said Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, a company that tracks online disinformation campaigns. “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”

One of the most divisive issues in the nation is how to handle guns, pitting Second Amendment advocates against proponents of gun control. And the messages from these automated accounts, or bots, were designed to widen the divide and make compromise even more difficult.
Any news event — no matter how tragic — has become fodder to spread inflammatory messages in what is believed to be a far-reaching Russian disinformation campaign. The disinformation comes in various forms: conspiracy videos on YouTube, fake interest groups on Facebook, and armies of bot accounts that can hijack a topic or discussion on Twitter.


Those automated Twitter accounts have been closely tracked by researchers. Last year, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, in conjunction with the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, created a website that tracks hundreds of Twitter accounts of human users and suspected bots that they have linked to a Russian influence campaign.

The researchers zeroed in on Twitter accounts posting information that was in step with material coming from well-known Russian propaganda outlets. To spot an automated bot, they looked for certain signs, like an extremely high volume of posts or content that conspicuously matched hundreds of other accounts.

The researchers said they had watched as the bots began posting about the Parkland shooting shortly after it happened.

Amplified by bot swarms, Russian-linked Twitter accounts tried to foment discord before and after the election. Hundreds of accounts promoted false stories about Hillary Clinton and spread articles based on leaked emails from Democratic operatives that had been obtained by Russian hackers.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have, to varying degrees, announced new measures to eliminate bot accounts, and have hired more moderators to help them weed out disinformation on their platforms.

But since the election, the Russian-linked bots have rallied around other divisive issues, often ones that President Trump has tweeted about. They promoted Twitter hashtags like #boycottnfl, #standforouranthem and #takeaknee after some National Football League players started kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

The automated Twitter accounts helped popularize the #releasethememo hashtag, which referred to a secret House Republican memorandum that suggested the F.B.I. and the Justice Department abused their authority to obtain a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser. The debate over the memo widened a schism between the White House and its own law enforcement agencies.
The bots are “going to find any contentious issue, and instead of making it an opportunity for compromise and negotiation, they turn it into an unsolvable issue bubbling with frustration,” said Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “It just heightens that frustration and anger.”

Intelligence officials in the United States have warned that malicious actors will try to spread disinformation ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. In testimony to Congress last year and in private meetings with lawmakers, social media companies promised that they will do better in 2018 than they did in 2016.

But the Twitter campaign around the Parkland shooting is an example of how Russian operatives are still at it.

“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks, but I believe, unfortunately, we still don’t have a comprehensive plan,” said Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a hearing this month on global threats to the United States. “What we’re seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions, and they’re going to keep coming at us.”

When the Russian bots jumped on the hashtag #Parklandshooting — initially created to spread news of the shooting — they quickly stoked tensions. Exploiting the issue of mental illness in the gun control debate, they propagated the notion that Nikolas Cruz, the suspected gunman, was a mentally ill “lone killer.” They also claimed that he had searched for Arabic phrases on Google before the shooting. Simultaneously, the bots started other hashtags, like #ar15, for the semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting, and #NRA.

The bots’ behavior follows a pattern, said Mr. Morgan, one of the researchers who worked with the German Marshall Fund to create Hamilton 68, the website that monitors Russian bot and fake Twitter activity. The bots target a contentious issue like race relations or guns. They stir the pot, often animating both sides and creating public doubt in institutions like the police or media. Any issue associated with extremist views is a ripe target.

The goal is to push fringe ideas into the “slightly more mainstream,” Mr. Morgan said. If well-known people retweet the bot messages or simply link to a website the bots are promoting, the messages gain an edge of legitimacy.

An indictment made public on Friday by Mr. Mueller as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the election mentioned a Russian Twitter feed, @TEN_GOP, which posed as a Tennessee Republican account and attracted more than 100,000 followers. Messages from this now-deleted account were retweeted by the president’s sons and close advisers including Kellyanne Conway and Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser.
The indictment also described how fraudulent Russian accounts on Twitter tried to push real Americans into action. The indictment said the fake Twitter account @March_for_Trump had organized political rallies for Mr. Trump in New York before the election, including a “March for Trump” rally on June 25, 2016, and a “Down With Hillary” gathering on July 23, 2016.

By Friday morning, the bots that pushed the original tweets around the Parkland shooting had moved on to the hashtag #falseflag — a term used by conspiracy theorists to refer to a secret government operation that is carried out to look like something else — with a conspiracy theory that the shooting had never happened.

By Monday, the bots had new targets: the Daytona 500 auto race in Daytona Beach, Fla., and news about William Holleeder, a man facing trial in the Netherlands for his suspected role in six gangland killings. It is unclear why.





Continue reading the main story

NYT

The Content of the G.O.P.’s Character

Even those who have long since accepted the premise that Donald Trump is corrupt, self-centered and dishonest seem a bit shocked by his tirades over the Presidents’ Day weekend. Using the Parkland, Fla., massacre as an excuse to attack the F.B.I. for investigating Russian election intervention on his behalf — while lying about his own past denials that such intervention took place — took vileness to a new level, which is truly impressive given Trump’s previous record.

Yet if you step back a bit and think about it, Trump’s latest outbursts were very much in character — and I don’t just mean his personal character. When did you last see a member of the Trump administration, or for that matter any prominent Republican, admit error or accept responsibility for problems?

Don’t say that it has always been that way, that it’s just the way people are. On the contrary, taking responsibility for your actions — what my parents called being a mensch — used to be considered an essential virtue in politicians and adults in general. And in this as in so many things, there’s a huge asymmetry between the parties. Of course not all Democrats are honest and upstanding; but as far as I can tell, there’s almost nobody left in the G.O.P. willing to take responsibility for, well, anything.

And I don’t think this is an accident. The sad content of modern Republican character is a symptom of the corruption and hypocrisy that has afflicted half of our body politic — a sickness of the soul that manifests itself in personal behavior as well as policy.
Before I talk about that sickness, consider a few non-Trump examples of the lack of character that pervades this administration.


At the trivial but still telling end of the scale, we have the tale of Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who keeps flying first class at taxpayers’ expense. The money isn’t the important issue here, although his spending violates federal guidelines. The revealing thing, instead, is the supposed reason he needs to fly premium — you see, ordinary coach passengers have been known to say critical things to his face.

Remember this story the next time someone talks about liberal “snowflakes.”

More seriously, consider the behavior of John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, whose record of slandering critics and refusing to admit error is starting to rival his boss’s. Remember when Kelly made false accusations about Representative Frederica Wilson and refused to retract those accusations even after video showed they were false?

More recently, Kelly insisted that he didn’t know the full details about domestic abuse allegations against Rob Porter until, a White House staff member said, “40 minutes before he threw him out” — a claim that seems at odds with everything we know about this story. Even if this claim were true, an apology for his obliviousness seems in order. But these guys don’t apologize.

Oh, and by the way: Roy Moore still hasn’t conceded.

So it’s not just Trump. And it didn’t start with Trump. In fact, way back in 2006 I wrote about the “mensch gap” in the Bush administration — the unwillingness of top officials to accept responsibility for the botched occupation of Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and more.

Nor, by the way, are we only talking about politicians. In my neck of the woods, I remain amazed by the unwillingness of right-leaning economists to admit that they were wrong in predicting that the Fed’s efforts to rescue the economy would cause runaway inflation. Being wrong is one thing — it happens to everyone, myself very much included. Refusing to admit and learn from error is something different.

And let’s be clear: Personal responsibility isn’t dead everywhere. You can ask, for example, whether Hillary Clinton apologized sufficiently for her initial support of the Iraq war or her missteps in 2016 — but she did admit to making mistakes, which nobody on the other side ever seems to do.

So what happened to the character of the G.O.P.? I’m pretty sure that in this case the personal is, ultimately, political. The modern G.O.P. is, to an extent never before seen in American history, a party built around bad faith, around pretending that its concerns and goals are very different from what they really are. Flag-waving claims of patriotism, pious invocations of morality, stern warnings about fiscal probity are all cover stories for an underlying agenda mainly concerned with making plutocrats even richer.


And the character flaws of the party end up being echoed by the character flaws of its most prominent members. Are they bad people who chose their political affiliation because it fits their proclivities, or potentially good people corrupted by the company they keep? Probably some of both.
In any case, let’s be clear: America in 2018 is not a place where we can disagree without being disagreeable, where there are good people and good ideas on both sides, or whatever other bipartisan homily you want to recite. We are, instead, living in a kakistocracy, a nation ruled by the worst, and we need to face up to that unpleasant reality.



NYT

Tools of Trump’s Fixer: Payouts, Intimidation and the Tabloids By JIM RUTENBERG, MEGAN TWOHEY, REBECCA R. RUIZ, MIKE McINTIRE and MAGGIE HABERMAN FEB. 18, 2018

As accounts of past sexual indiscretions threatened to surface during Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, the job of stifling potentially damaging stories fell to his longtime lawyer and all-around fixer, Michael D. Cohen.

To protect his boss at critical junctures in his improbable political rise, the lawyer relied on intimidation tactics, hush money and the nation’s leading tabloid news business, American Media Inc., whose top executives include close Trump allies.

Mr. Cohen’s role has come under scrutiny amid recent revelations that he facilitated a payment to silence a porn star, but his aggressive behind-the-scenes efforts stretch back years, according to interviews, emails and other records.

They intensified as Mr. Trump’s campaign began in the summer of 2015, when a former hedge-fund manager told Mr. Cohen that he had obtained photographs of Mr. Trump with a bare-breasted woman. The man said Mr. Cohen first blew up at him, then steered him to David J. Pecker, chairman of the tabloid company, which sometimes bought, then buried, embarrassing material about his high-profile friends and allies.

In early 2016, after a legal affairs website uncovered old court cases in which a female former Trump business partner had accused him of sexual misconduct, Mr. Cohen released a statement suggesting that the woman, Jill Harth, “would acknowledge” that the story was false. Ms. Harth said the statement was made without her permission, and that she stands by her claims. It was not the last time Mr. Cohen would present a denial on behalf of a woman who had alleged a sexual encounter with Mr. Trump.

In August of that year, Mr. Cohen learned details of a deal that American Media had struck with a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, that prevented her from going public about an alleged affair with Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen was not representing anyone in the confidential agreement, but he was apprised of it by Ms. McDougal’s lawyer, and earlier had been made aware of her attempt to tell her story by the media company, according to interviews and an email reviewed by The New York Times.
Photo
Donald J. Trump speaking at a Miss Universe book party in 2006. Credit Gabriela Maj/Patrick McMullan, via Getty Images
Two months later, Mr. Cohen played a direct role in a similar deal involving an adult film star, Stephanie Clifford, who used the stage name Stormy Daniels, and who once said she had had an affair with Mr. Trump. Last week, Mr. Cohen said he used his own money for the $130,000 payment to her, which has prompted a complaint alleging that Mr. Cohen violated campaign finance regulations. Legal experts also have noted that the payment on behalf of his client may have violated New York’s ethics rules.

Mr. Cohen, who is still described as Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer although he is no longer on the Trump Organization payroll, has denied any wrongdoing and insists the arrangement was legal. In an interview, he disputed details of some of his other activities that were described to The Times. But he has never shied away from his role as Mr. Trump’s loyal defender. “It is not like I just work for Mr. Trump,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview in 2016. “I am his friend, and I would do just about anything for him and also his family.”

An examination of the efforts to shield Mr. Trump from aspects of his own past shows how Mr. Cohen maneuvered in the pay-to-play gossip world — populated by porn stars and centerfold models, tabloid editors and lawyers with B- and C-list entertainment clients — that came to unusual prominence in an American presidential election.

Mr. Cohen exploited mutual-self interest. By heading off trouble involving Mr. Trump’s history with women, he accrued loyalty points, the ultimate currency with Mr. Trump. He dealt with lawyers who could win fat cuts of any settlements women might reach with American Media or with Mr. Trump.
At least two women got money and, in Ms. McDougal’s case, a promise of favorable attention in American Media publications, which include The National Enquirer, Star, Us Weekly and Radar. Mr. Trump, of course, benefited the most: avoiding more scrutiny as he struggled to dismiss multiple allegations of groping and unwanted advances that arose during the campaign.

One American Media executive, in a 2016 interview, said that the priority was that nothing embarrassing come out. But in the gossip economy, secrets last only as long as the incentives to keep them do.
Photo
David J. Pecker, chairman of American Media Inc., a tabloid news company that has bought and buried unflattering material about his high-profile friends and allies. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Risqué Photos

It was July 2015 when Mr. Cohen received a phone call from Jeremy Frommer, a hedge-fund manager turned digital entrepreneur, who had obtained photos of Mr. Trump appearing to autograph the breasts of a topless woman from the estate of Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine. Mr. Cohen was not pleased.

“He was in a rage,” Mr. Frommer said in an interview. “He’s like, ‘If you show those photos, I’m gonna take you down.’”

It was the rough talk of a Long Island native who started his career juggling work as a personal injury lawyer and taxi fleet manager and met Mr. Trump after acquiring units in Trump buildings.

After Mr. Cohen joined the Trump Organization in 2006, the role that Mr. Trump wanted him to play was clear: a combination of aggressive spokesman and lieutenant who would take on the real estate mogul’s antagonists. It was a job Roy Cohn, a New York lawyer best known for advising Senator Joseph McCarthy, had done decades earlier for Mr. Trump. Mr. Cohen’s work for his boss was often a mystery even to others in his office, but his devotion was clear.

In talking with Mr. Cohen, Mr. Frommer mentioned Mr. Pecker. Years earlier, Mr. Frommer had sold American Media the exclusive rights to a suggestive photograph of Arnold Schwarzenegger — which it did not publish — and he knew the company’s chief executive.

Mr. Frommer recalled Mr. Cohen’s saying, “Yeah, I know Pecker.” Mr. Frommer added, “That’s where the conversation calmed down.”
Photo
Mr. Trump with Jill Harth, a former business partner who accused him of sexual misconduct. Credit George Houraney
Mr. Pecker and Mr. Trump, a staple of the American gossip media since the 1980s, have a friendship that goes back decades. The relationship benefited Mr. Trump throughout the campaign as The Enquirer lionized him and hammered rivals like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and, finally, Hillary Clinton.
Mr. Cohen formed his own bond with Mr. Pecker, keeping in touch with him and Dylan Howard, a top executive, throughout the campaign.

American Media acknowledged those ties, saying in a statement, “Michael Cohen and President Trump have been personal friends of Mr. Pecker’s for decades.” But, it said, neither of them “nor any other individual has attempted to, or ever, influenced (or will ever influence) coverage at A.M.I.’s publications. Period.”

After the initial blowup, Mr. Frommer said, he and Mr. Cohen quickly agreed that Mr. Frommer would take the Trump photos to Mr. Pecker. The men soon began discussing potential business deals, including an interview with Mr. Trump as part of a joint project between American Media and Mr. Frommer’s company, Jerrick Media, according to text messages and emails reviewed by The Times.
“Spoke to Cohen we are set. Well done!” Mr. Pecker told Mr. Frommer in a July 2015 text exchange.

Two months later, when Mr. Frommer expressed doubt that the Trump interview would take place, Mr. Cohen responded in an Oct. 5 email: “No no … relax. I am on it and will make it happen.”

Mr. Frommer said he had assured Mr. Cohen at the time that he wouldn’t make the photos public — “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to publish them’” — but that the decision had nothing to do with the business talks.

In the end, American Media concluded that the photos were of little value. The interview and the deals never materialized for Mr. Frommer, who went on to publish one of the Trump photos on his own website.

American Media said in a statement that it had no interest in suppressing the photographs. But in early 2016, an American Media executive, speaking only on condition of anonymity in discussing internal company thinking, said that when the negotiations between A.M.I. and Mr. Frommer began, they were intended to suppress the photos, part of broader efforts by American Media to “catch and kill” information that would damage Mr. Trump.

In an interview Friday, Mr. Cohen acknowledged directing Mr. Frommer to A.M.I., but said he did so not because of photographs of Mr. Trump but for other photos of “another notable individual that I had no interest in seeing or wanting.”

Back then, however, Mr. Cohen acknowledged that he had been eager to keep the photos hidden. “Mr. Trump has a family,” he said. “I felt like I had to protect his family.”

A Playmate’s Story

For Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump, American Media was more than a company they could rely on for friendly coverage. It was also where people looking to sell potentially damaging information about Mr. Trump were likely to turn.
Photo
Karen McDougal, a former Playboy Playmate, claimed to have had a consensual affair with Mr. Trump while he was married. Credit Bennett Raglin/Getty Images
In the summer of 2016, American Media came to Mr. Cohen with a story involving Ms. McDougal, the former Playboy Playmate. She claimed to have had a consensual affair with Mr. Trump in the mid-2000s, early in his marriage to Melania Trump. Mr. Trump denies an affair.

Ms. McDougal had retained Keith Davidson, a Hollywood lawyer, who reached out to contacts at American Media. After negotiating on and off for a couple of months, A.M.I. agreed to give Ms. McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights to her story, along with promises of publicity and marketing opportunities through its fitness magazines. The contract did not identify Mr. Trump, but required her to keep quiet about any relationship with a married man.

A.M.I. had shared her allegations with Mr. Cohen, though it said it did so only as it worked to corroborate her claims, which it said it ultimately could not do. But that was not the only heads-up Mr. Cohen received.

Soon after Ms. McDougal signed the confidential agreement on Aug. 5, 2016, Mr. Davidson emailed 
 Mr. Cohen, “Michael, please give me a call at your convenience.” Mr. Davidson followed up by explaining to Mr. Cohen over the phone that the McDougal transaction had been completed, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Mr. Cohen said, “I don’t recall those communications.”

Mr. Davidson acknowledged the public’s interest in Ms. Clifford’s and Ms. McDougal’s stories, but said that he was “not at liberty to discuss private client information.”

In the months after Ms. McDougal’s agreement with A.M.I., Mr. Trump’s relationships with women drew more scrutiny on the campaign trail. The release of an audio recording that captured the candidate bragging about grabbing women’s genitals inspired numerous women to step forward with allegations that he had groped or kissed them against their will.
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Keith Davidson, a Hollywood lawyer retained by Ms. McDougal, reached out to contacts at American Media to offer to sell her story.
According to people in contact with her at the time, Ms. McDougal expressed frustration with what she viewed as foot-dragging by A.M.I. in fulfilling commitments made in her contract and with Mr. Davidson’s lackluster response to her. She reached out to a prominent First Amendment lawyer, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who had made a public pledge in October 2016 to defend anyone threatened with legal action by Mr. Trump for making allegations against him. Mr. Boutrous briefly represented Ms. McDougal, focusing primarily on her restrictive contract with A.M.I., which in late November 2016 agreed she could respond to “legitimate” press inquiries about the alleged affair.

Ms. McDougal’s story eventually became public, in a Wall Street Journal article published days before the election. The New Yorker published new details, including an interview with her, last week.

Quelling a Storm

Over the years Mr. Cohen had come to know Ms. McDougal’s lawyer, Mr. Davidson, well enough that when New York magazine profiled Mr. Davidson last week, Mr. Cohen offered an enthusiastic endorsement: “He has always been professional, ethical and a true gentleman.” (The California State Bar suspended Mr. Davidson’s law license for 90 days in 2010, for four counts of misconduct.)
Mr. Davidson’s client list had included the professional athletes Jalen Rose and Manny Pacquiao, as well as gossip-page regulars who placed him in the middle of the sex-tape cases of the “Austin Powers” actor Verne Troyer, the wrestler Hulk Hogan and the onetime Playboy model and MTV host Tila Tequila. He was a natural choice for Ms. Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, when she sought to sell her own Trump story.

She was alleging that she had had a consensual sexual relationship with Mr. Trump after they met at a celebrity golf tournament about 10 years earlier (Mr. Trump denies her claims).

Just two months after Ms. McDougal’s story was effectively muted by her contract with American Media, Mr. Davidson set about brokering the silence of the adult film actress. This time, the negotiator on the other end of the transaction was Mr. Cohen.

The actress agreed to a $130,000 settlement in mid-October 2016 in exchange for keeping quiet, according to contracts seen by The Times and people familiar with the matter. To make the payment, Mr. Cohen created a Delaware limited liability company called Essential Consultants, news of which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal last month, and he claimed in a statement first released to The Times last week that the money came from his own pocket.

Ms. Clifford has suggested in recent days that she believes Mr. Cohen has breached that agreement and that she is preparing to speak out. In 2011, she had told her story about Mr. Trump to two gossip publications. One of them, In Touch magazine, did not publish the story after Mr. Cohen warned that he would pursue aggressive legal action, The Associated Press reported last month.

The other outlet, The Dirty, took down a brief story after Mr. Davidson threatened legal action just a day after his client had provided information to the website, according to Nik Richie, The Dirty’s founder, and a letter seen by The Times.

After the deal between Ms. McDougal and A.M.I. was completed, Mr. Davidson regularly exchanged emails, text messages and calls with Mr. Cohen, according to people familiar with the contacts, including last week, when Mr. Davidson publicly bolstered Mr. Cohen’s statement that he had paid Ms. Clifford himself.

Mr. Cohen went on to steer a new client to Mr. Davidson, Chuck LaBella, a former NBC executive who worked closely with Mr. Trump on “The Apprentice” and the “Miss USA” pageant. Mr. LaBella had become the object of an intense Twitter campaign — led by the comedian and ardent Trump critic Tom Arnold — calling upon him to share anything he might know about misbehavior by Mr. Trump. He became a client of Mr. Davidson last fall, according to people familiar with the arrangement.

Bitcoin Thieves Threaten Real Violence for Virtual Currencies

The rich have always feared robbery and extortion. Now, big holders of Bitcoin and its brethren have become alluring marks for criminals, especially since the prices of virtual currencies entered the stratosphere last year.

Virtual currencies can be easily transferred to an anonymous address set up by a criminal. While banks can stop or reverse large electronic transactions made under duress, there is no Bitcoin bank to halt or take back a transfer, making the chances of a successful armed holdup frighteningly enticing.
Thieves have taken advantage of this system in a startling number of recent cases, from Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to Canada, the United States and Britain.
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A person with a cryptocurrency hardware wallet at La Maison du Bitcoin in Paris. Credit Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“This is now becoming more pervasive and touching more law enforcement divisions that deal with organized crime and violent crime on a local level,” said Jonathan Levin, the founder of Chainalysis, which has worked with several law enforcement agencies on virtual currency crimes.

Mr. Levin’s company specializes in tracking criminal transactions on the blockchain, the computerized ledger where every Bitcoin transaction is publicly recorded.

Chainalysis has helped police attempt to track down criminals in several recent cases, including some that have not been made public, according to Mr. Levin.

But even when a transaction can be tracked, the design of Bitcoin means that criminals do not have to associate their identity with their Bitcoin address — as is necessary with most traditional bank accounts. That has stymied police in several cases.

“For this, the advantage of Bitcoin is that it’s hard to verify,” said Chanut Hongsitthichaikul, an investigator with the Chalong Police Station, which investigated the case in Phuket. “We asked the victim how to track it since they know Bitcoin better than us. We asked them how to check the receiver. They said there is no way. It is hard to do.”

The Thai police tracked the victim’s laptop, which was also stolen, to Kuala Lumpur. That’s where the trail went cold.

While the recent crime wave has brought a new level of violence, virtual currency holders have been targets for several years. Criminals have been staging a long-running campaign to remotely hijack the cellphone numbers of prominent virtual currency holders in order to gain control of their digital wallets.

A few years ago, some of Bitcoin’s earliest proponents had SWAT teams called to their homes by people who demanded big Bitcoin payments to stop the harassment — a tactic called “SWATing” in some online communities.

There have also been many documented holdups around the world at in-person meetings where people were looking to convert cash into virtual currency, including one last year in Palm Beach, Fla., where the thief made off with $28,000 before being arrested.
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Police in Phuket, Thailand, said attackers held a young Russian man in his apartment until he transferred about $100,000 worth of Bitcoin to their control. “We asked the victim how to track it since they know Bitcoin better than us,” one investigator said. “We asked them how to check the receiver. They said there is no way.” Credit Chalong Police station
But criminals have grown much more brazen as the price of Bitcoin has spiked.

The most audacious attack hit Exmo, the virtual currency exchange in Ukraine. The chief executive of the exchange, Pavel Lerner, was abducted the day after Christmas and freed a few days later after the company made a ransom payment of Bitcoin worth around $1 million.

A spokeswoman for Exmo said the money came from Mr. Lerner’s personal funds. Mr. Lerner was on leave from the company but would return.

A month earlier, a Turkish businessman was forced to hand over the passwords to his virtual currency wallets — containing nearly $3 million worth of Bitcoin — after having his car stopped by an armed gang in Istanbul that appeared to know about his Bitcoin holdings, according to local news reports.
Many big virtual currency holders privately say that they will no longer travel to Russia, Turkey or other countries where they assume that attacks may be easier to pull off because of organized crime.
But armed attackers have also hit a Canadian Bitcoin exchange in Ottawa, the Ether investor in New York City and a prominent virtual currency trader living near Oxford, England.

In a number of cases, the assailants have been caught — and forced to return money — because of video footage. In other cases, the criminals are still at large.

The unsolved crimes have sown fear among the ranks of the so-called crypto rich, which have grown considerably over the past year.

At a conference for about 170 leaders in the virtual currency industry this month, there was a panel discussion about how to deal with the threat of robbery, extortion and kidnappings in which the criminals seek Bitcoin or other virtual currencies.

Organizers of the conference, known as the Satoshi Roundtable and held near Cancun, Mexico, brought in a security force and instituted significant privacy measures for guests to protect them from criminals while they were in attendance.
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Bitcoin is the world’s most popular virtual currency. Such currencies are not tied to a bank or government and allow users to transfer money anonymously. Credit Kin Cheung/Associated Press
During the group discussion at the conference, attendees talked about having a “duress wallet” at home that can be handed over to throw an assailant off the trail of a bigger fortune, as well as several other security measures that can be used to deal with the threat.

Most of the crypto rich are loath to speak publicly about the risk of physical attacks, for fear of making themselves targets.

But Jameson Lopp, a longtime Bitcoin engineer and virtual currency holder, said the community should be proactive in confronting the threat, to let criminals know that people are taking steps to protect themselves.

Last summer, someone called a SWAT team to Mr. Lopp’s house to harass him. Since then, Mr. Lopp has installed closed-circuit cameras around his property and posted photos on Twitter of the automatic weapon he has at home.
In a more technical defensive measure, Mr. Lopp has long kept his virtual currency in so-called multisignature wallets created by the company he works for, BitGo. These wallets require multiple people to sign off on a transaction before the money can move.

Mr. Lopp will go even further later this year when he, his girlfriend and his dog move to a new home. He plans to “go dark” — not providing the address to anyone and using a post office box for deliveries. But he said even that will not fully banish his concerns.

“If you are rich and you own real estate, or stocks or a sports team, somebody can’t mug you and take your sports team away,” he said. “Having liquid crypto assets makes you much more attractive for that type of criminal attack.”
\
Mr. Levin said programmers are working to develop methods of signing virtual currency transactions that can quietly alert the authorities that a transaction is being made under duress — something like the hidden button under the bank teller’s desk.

But he said the most obvious way to thwart attackers is with wallets that require multiple signatures, and with less public discussion about owning virtual currencies.

Mr. Lopp said it is important to publicize the many ways in which virtual currency holders can fend off assailants so that criminals reconsider the likelihood of a successful attack.

“We’re in the very early days of this becoming a problem,” Mr. Lopp said. “The attackers are still trying to figure out what the risk-reward really is.”

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Appeasing the Trigger Gods

WASHINGTON — During his campaign, Donald Trump often bragged about his skill as a negotiator.

In conversations, he ventured that, as president, he might be able to resolve two of the most thorny and tragic dilemmas: finding peace in the Mideast and reaching a sensible compromise on guns.
He said he would hop in his limo and go to N.R.A. headquarters in suburban Virginia and stay as long as it took to make a deal, noting that there were points where both sides in the debate could agree.

Even if Trump once had some negotiating aptitude — his biographers say it was rare — we have seen his art-of-the-deal aspirations evaporate in a cloud of self-absorption, as one tableau of legislative chaos after another unfolds.

Trump wrote in his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” that he was in favor of a ban on assault weapons and “a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” But then the N.R.A. spent more than $30 million to get him elected. All his earlier moderate positions withered as he slavishly followed the money and applause from the basest of his base.

“You came through big for me and I am going to come through for you,” he told the N.R.A. after his election, out-Hestoning Charlton Heston.

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After 49 people were killed in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June 2016, he suggested that it would have been “a beautiful, beautiful sight” if more people in the club had been armed and went “boom” at the “maniac” shooting at them.

It was too hard-line even for the N.R.A.

“I don’t think you should have firearms where people are drinking,” N.R.A. chief Wayne LaPierre demurred.

The Orlando shooting also provided confirmation that the emotionally stunted Trump would not be a parental healer for the country, when he tweeted congratulations to himself for predicting the shooter would have links to terrorism, rather than offering comforting words to the grieving families and friends, and to shaken Americans.

Last year, weeks after taking office, Trump signed a bill rolling back a regulation that made it harder for mentally ill people to buy guns. And a day after Wednesday’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla., by a mentally disturbed teenager with an AR-15 who killed 14 kids and three adults trying to protect the students, the president seemed unable even to utter the word “gun.” (This, even as his favorite newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, blared the headline: “MR. PRESIDENT, PLEASE ACT.”)

I started covering gun control back in 1989 when the first Bush administration banned imports of most semiautomatic rifles and skepticism was growing about the N.R.A.’s mantra that anyone should be able to buy anything with a trigger.

In an interview at N.R.A. headquarters — which proudly displayed a model of the pistol used to assassinate Lincoln — LaPierre explained that AK semiautomatics were just uglier hunting guns and that he knew how to hunker down during periods of “hysteria” after shootings.

I wrote about the heartbreaking funerals after the 2012 massacre of Sandy Hook Elementary’s “beautiful babies,” as Joe Biden called them. I profiled Chris Murphy, the estimable junior senator from Connecticut who suddenly found himself facing down the Republican N.R.A. puppets in Congress. And I wrote in disgust about President Barack Obama failing to marshal the L.B.J. mojo to push through a gun control bill after Sandy Hook even though he had 90 percent of Americans on his side and a Democratic Senate.

Then I gave up. If the sight of slaughtered angels did not dent the nation’s conscience, could anything? We knew that other countries could stem mass killings, homicides and suicides with gun control and gun buybacks. But we didn’t care.

In our ongoing angst about our national identity — if we weren’t John Wayne anymore, who were we? — there had been a terrible tacit judgment made: America would accept periodic human sacrifices to the trigger gods in the interest of upholding this bizarre notion that the Second Amendment is inviolate or even really threatened. We can’t even summon the energy to break the chokehold that the N.R.A. has on Republicans in Congress.

Since Newtown, there have been more than 1,600 mass shootings. Each time, the outrage seems to fade faster.

When societies try to protect a malevolent status quo, they become warped. The most chilling sign of this is when people look the other way as the most vulnerable members of society are preyed on.
It happened with the Catholic Church, where priests caught preying on children were protected and recirculated to new parishes, where they could continue their crimes. The community shrugged. The children were collateral damage.

It happened with Hollywood, when everyone knew about Harvey Weinstein’s predations yet let lovely young women, at that moment of gardenia-fragility when they thought the macher could make their dreams come true, walk into his sulfurous quarters. The community shrugged. The young women were collateral damage.

Now children in this country go to school every day knowing that they are not safe, that a crazed predator could show up at any moment with an assault rifle and cut them down. America shrugs. Our children are collateral damage.


The #MeToo movement has proved that spider webs of protection for predators can be ripped apart in an instant, that unspeakable things that have been tolerated for decades can suddenly be deemed intolerable.

America is in the throes of great disruptions and anxieties, as we sort out our values and our future. But it doesn’t take any soul searching to know this: Treating children as collateral damage is intolerable.


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