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The Journalists Have Been Hacked

The Journalists Have Been Hacked

On October 4, 2018 I read an article. As I read it I thought:

This is it. This is the most consequential article of this decade. When the dust has settled on this scoop, everything else will pale in comparison.

The piece described in detail how Chinese spies had gained access to seemingly every computer network of any significance by including extra circuitry in the hardware it had produced for computer makers:

Nested on the servers’ motherboards, the testers found a tiny microchip, not much bigger than a grain of rice, that wasn’t part of the boards’ original design. Amazon reported the discovery to U.S. authorities, sending a shudder through the intelligence community. Elemental’s servers could be found in Department of Defense data centers, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships.

This piece was reported in Bloomberg who stands by the story.

United States corporations have spent decades outsourcing their supply chains. Much of that includes doing assembly-work in China. Contrary to the current administration’s insistence, building those capabilities doesn’t happen overnight. You need to make not only the machines but the machines that make the machines. And you need to train people to use them. What took decades to build in China could take a decade to build here. And what do you do in the meantime? We still need servers. Do we keep using infected machines and infected networks that beam our data back to China?

It turns out we don’t have to worry about those questions because the story is almost certainly false. I don’t make that judgment lightly. I have unordered reasons:

  • The named companies vociferously denied it—under penalty of SEC violations. Bloomberg hosts the denials, and they leave no room for doubt. If these statements are false, those making them would be sued into oblivion.  Apple even doubled down on its statements accusing Bloomberg of getting its story entirely wrong and affirming the truth of their denials.
  • As noted by John Gruber at Daring Fireball, the timeline is weird:

    [Bloomberg:] Three senior insiders at Apple say that in the summer of 2015, it, too, found malicious chips on Supermicro motherboards. Apple severed ties with Supermicro the following year, for what it described as unrelated reasons. […] Apple made its discovery of suspicious chips inside Supermicro servers around May 2015, after detecting odd network activity and firmware problems, according to a person familiar with the timeline. Two of the senior Apple insiders say the company reported the incident to the FBI but kept details about what it had detected tightly held, even internally.

  • Gruber: What sense does it make that Apple discovered a profound security problem in Super Micro motherboards in May 2015, so serious that the company reported it to the FBI, but then didn’t sever ties with Supermicro until at least eight months later? That timeline makes no sense.

  • No one else has been able to corroborate anything Bloomberg reported. Buzzfeed reported:

    The United States Department of Homeland Security, the UK’s National Cyber Security Center, NSA Senior Adviser for Cybersecurity Strategy Rob Joyce, former FBI general counsel James Baker, and US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have all said variously that they either have no reason to doubt the denials of the companies mentioned in the Bloomberg story or that they’ve seen no evidence supporting its claims. And some sources named in the story have raised questions about it and how their remarks were used.

  • The Department of Homeland Security denied it.
  • A good bit of time has passed and nothing has happened. The markets don’t seem to penalized anyone. We haven’t heard of anyone pulling out their motherboard and finding extra bits on their computers that shouldn’t be there.
  • The sophistication of the attack seems out of step with what real incidents of spy hacking from China. They aren’t this subtle.

I lied about the order. Here is one of the best reasons to doubt Bloomberg’s story:

FITZPATRICK: But what really struck me is that like all the details that were even remotely technical, seemed like they had been lifted from from the conversations I had about theoretically how hardware implants work and how the devices I was making to show off at Black Hat two years ago worked.

GRAY: So I guess what you are saying here is, the report, I mean all of the technical details of the report, you’d covered that ground with that reporter.

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, I had conversations about all the technical details and various contexts. But there are a lot of filters that happen, you know? When I explain hardware things even to software people, I don’t expect people to get it the first time and I don’t expect people to be able to describe it accurately all the time. So there is definitely a lot of telephone exchange happening

GRAY: OK but why did that make you feel uneasy? Could it be the case that you know that the technical things you told him lined up perfectly with the technical things that some of these 17 of the anonymous sources told him?

FITZPATRICK: You know, I’m just Joe. I do this stuff solo. I am building hardware implants for phones to show off at conferences. I’m not a pro at building hardware implants. I don’t work for any nation or any state building and shipping these as products. I feel like I have a good grasp at what’s possible and what’s available and how to do it just from my practice. But it was surprising to me that in a scenario where I would describe these things and then he would go and confirm these and 100 percent of what I described was confirmed by sources.

GRAY: And that’s what he was telling you through this process?

FITZPATRICK: That’s what I read in the article.

GRAY: OK, right. You find that a bit strange? That every single thing you seem to tell him, or a large proportion of what you told him, was then confirmed by his other sources.

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, basically. Either I have excellent foresight or something else is going on.

It is my humble suspicion that some people with an agenda took Joe Fitzpatrick’s story about what was theoretically possible and sought to get it published as truth. The administration has certainly been trying very hard to convince the public that trade with China is bad. The Bloomberg story is merely one example of a series of such attempts. And it was possible because journalism has been hacked.

Even today, journalism does employ some number of serious reporters with standards. This seems good, but as I have written in the context of college admissions, once you codify your process, you’ve inadvertently published a guide to how to break through your process.

Additionally, I might remind you that the Trump Administration already knows this, and has used it to get The New York Times to smear its enemies on its behalf. As a reminder, all you have to do is tell the Times something newsworthy and then get two other seemingly independent sources to verify the same. Reporters think they are triangulating to find the truth, but you are the one placing the vertices of the triangle for them to draw.

Buzzfeed, recently, didn’t wait for the triangle. They reported the following scorching lede:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

Notice that the last bit of this lede covers Buzzfeed itself as an organization. They are not saying that Trump actually did this. They are merely relating what “two federal law enforcement officials” said. If those two officials have an agenda, that’s no fault of Buzzfeed’s. Buyer beware. But don’t blame Buzzfeed online. This is a trick used by institutions no less prestigious than The Atlantic, NPR, and PBS. All prefer to let sources speak rather than make judgments of fact themselves. Indeed, that’s what many of them think good reporting is.

motherboard photoSoon after Buzzfeed’s story we got a rare sighting of Robert Mueller’s spokesperson calling it inaccurate:



I don’t know whether Buzzfeed got taken for a ride by it’s sources, but it certainly seems possible that someone had an agenda and sought to manipulate the conversation. This will continue to happen. Will journalists wise up?

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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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22 thoughts on “The Journalists Have Been Hacked

    • One wonders if the proprietors of Buzzfeed would even have viewed it as a positive had the increase in prestige the site may have enjoyed had this story held up been realized. What’s the upside? It might well be just a burden to uphold. They got rich telling us about the 27 Reasons “Friends” Was the Second Greatest Television Series of the 1990s, and as far as they’re concerned, why would becoming sort-of-Washington-Post-lite be better than just keeping doing that?

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  1. At this point journalism is too irreparably damaged to learn. As soon as I saw this story was based on ‘unnamed sources’ I knew it would fall apart. Any story based on hearsay from people who won’t go on record isn’t credible, period, end of story, and until news rooms change their standards they’ll keep getting it wrong. The fact that they haven’t makes all the preening, ‘democracy dies in darkness’ bullshit even more insufferable.

    No the press isn’t the enemy of the people but they are puppets and weaklings, not powerful or independent institutions. This latest episode is just another exhibit of the same.

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    • The story hasn’t fallen apart, though; it’s being asserted by one set of investigatory figures (probably SDNY) and denied by another (Mueller’s crew), and they’re differing on what can be successfully argued in court. The failure here is that it’s being treated as “We’ve got the bastard now!” vs,. “No, you don’t! MAGA!”

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  2. I remember when people made fun of the Enquirer for running crap like this. “PRINCESS DI MAD AT FERGIE!*” (*according to anonymous palace source who is a friend of someone who works in the kitchen)

    A handful of grownups explained to me that the Enquirer’s lawyers were really good and the Enquirer was always *VERY* careful with how it phrased things in the main story and it was the *HEADLINE* that was sensational.

    We are all the Enquirer now.

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  3. I don’t disagree with the substance. I do disagree with the implied timeline. Journalism was hacked long ago, prior to the inception of a discipline called “journalism”. Propaganda and journalism are fruit of the same tree.

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    • More and more I think that the era of news outlets operating as independent power brokers (even if just for the wealthy families that ran them) was the exception. The problem is that our culture got used to that norm and is struggling to wake up, even after well documented debacles like the run up to the Iraq invasion. There’s a broad lack of appreciation for just how weak and easy to manipulate the press has become.

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  4. I had the same reaction to that Supermicro story that you do. You’ve done more legwork, though. I’ve been skeptical of it since it came out. I think they were hacked in exactly the way you describe.

    I’m uncertain about the Buzzfeed thing, though. What happened there? And why? That’s very murky. But yes, it does call to mind the hacking of journalism as happened with the Supermicro story.

    However, I am a bit more sympathetic to journalists. We are in a time of “information warfare”, as long practiced by the Soviets and currently practiced by Putin. They are constantly feeding bad information into what would normally be good channels, because they want to discredit those good channels, and leave the public with no good channels at all. Which gives them more freedom of action.

    Which makes those of us who are interested in getting good information with a larger task, which we need to tuck into, rather than simply throwing rocks at news organizations.

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  5. Guys, while I’m all for fixing the media, we all do understand the story of Trump telling Cohen to lie is obviously true, right? Cohen did, definitively lie to Congres, and there’s literally no reason for him to lie on his own. Of course he was directed to by Trump.

    The Buzzfeed story was actually more relevant in answering ‘What is Mueller’s office working on?’ than ‘What happened?’.

    The Mueller’s office could be disputing pretty much any trivial fact in that story in an attempt to keep it quiet for the time being, and has basically refused to state what, exactly, is wrong. It’s actually a rather odd statement: BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.

    Basically, once you parse that confusing thing out, what Mueller’s office said isn’t that Buzzfeed’s _sources_ are wrong, what they are saying is that Buzzfeed is _describing_ and _characterizing_ some things wrong. This might include things we can see in plain sight like Congressional testimony and previous court filing. People asserting that Buzzfeed got its _facts_ wrong are leaping to conclusions. It is entirely possible that the anonymous sources Buzzfeed are citing are 100% correct.

    I hope this is where Buzzfeed was wrong: But Cohen’s testimony marks a significant new frontier: It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.

    I hope Mueller’s office is disputing ‘first’.

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    • This view only makes sense to the extent that you’re looking to the press for the confirmation of things that you already believe to be true or for some nebulous deeper truth. Personally, I look to the press for facts. I can put the pieces together myself.

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      • This view only makes sense to the extent that you’re looking to the press for the confirmation of things that you already believe to be true or for some nebulous deeper truth.

        I’m not looking to the press for ‘confirmation’ of anything. Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about the President’s behavior. He was employed by the President at the time. He was frequently paid by the President to lie about other things, and in fact committed and plead guilty to felony campaign finance fraud to pay Stormy Daniels to lie at the direction of the President.

        All these things are known, indisputable facts, that have been confessed to and admitted in court.

        I’m not really in need of any need of confirmation that the President specifically directed Cohen to lie to Congress. The idea that Cohen would choose on his own to lie to Congress about when the Russian talks ended to protect the President, who again was employing him and lying about the exact same thing at the exact same time (Just not to Congress) is an astonishingly silly idea that has no place in a discussion of what happened.

        Cohen lied to Congress because the President ordered him to, period. This is not really debatable. Now, he might have done it mob-boss style, by implication, and kept his fingerprints off it, so it might not be provable in court. I personally doubt that, because the President is exceptionally bad at that sort of subtle hinting at things, and not saying what he legally shouldn’t say. We all know in our hearts he’d stand there and hint at it twice, and then come out flatly and say it.

        But regardless of whether or not it’s eventually provable in court (Not that this would play out in court), he did it, and I don’t need any ‘confirmation’ he did, because that is the only conclusion that makes any sense at all and the burden of proof for people saying otherwise to present some sort of alternate explanation of why Cohen would randomly choose to lie to Congress. I see no possible explanation besides ‘Cohen lied to Congress, like he lied everywhere else, because his job was basically to lie for Trump and get other people to lie for Trump’

        The question the Buzzfeed article is addressing, at least for me, is not ‘What happened?’, because anyone who has been paying attention and using any sort of logic knows what happened. It’s ‘What evidence does Mueller have and what is he doing with that evidence?’.

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        • I’m not looking to the press for ‘confirmation’ of anything…

          Cohen lied to Congress because the President ordered him to, period. This is not really debatable. Now, he might have done it mob-boss style, by implication, and kept his fingerprints off it, so it might not be provable in court. I personally doubt that…

          OK, but it sure sounds like looking for confirmation of your pre-existing theories is exactly what you’re doing.

          The question the Buzzfeed article is addressing, at least for me, is not ‘What happened?’, because anyone who has been paying attention and using any sort of logic knows what happened.

          If you’re using logic to fill in the blanks, then by definition you don’t have direct knowledge of what’s in the blanks. You may be the target audience for this kind of truth before facts style of journalism.

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          • You are, basically, practicing selective solipsism, where your arguments can be used to argue we don’t know _anything_. In fact, I’m a bit baffled as to why you think we should believe what words on the screen says, we have no direct knowledge of this at all. It’s _all_ theories. I mean, I don’t even know Donald Trump actually _exists_. I’ve never met him. I’ve seen him on TV, but I’ve seen Matt Murdock on TV and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t exist.

            You have just randomly drew the line at needing more ‘facts’ (Which the newspapers will provide evidence of, despite them just being words on a screen?) for some reason.

            Once you get out of the dumb ‘How can we know anything anyway’ position, and actually _take the facts as presented by the courts_, you will notice, as Stillwater pointed out, Cohen literally stated he lied to Congress on behalf of the President in his guilty plea about lying to Congress. (And, again, he had no motive to lie and commit a felony besides Trump telling him to.)

            Pretending this is some giant unknowable thing we need more information about is utterly bizarre, and appears to be you taking a political position while pretending to be neutral. The only current possibilities are: a) The President ordered the lying to Congress directly, and Muller can prove it, b) The President ordered the lying directly, and Muller can’t prove it, or c) The President did not directly order the lying, he just had someone on the payroll who lied all the time for him, and let him testify in front of Congress, and The President also did not correct the record or even have him arrested for lying to Congress, and in fact the President repeated the lies. Aka, the ‘mafia’ option, where you tell people to ‘take care of the problem’.

            So I guess my question is: Do you just assign a very high probability to (c)? If so, why?

            Or do you think there might be some other option?

            I, personally, give (c) very little weight, because if there’s one thing this president does, it’s micromanage ‘public relations’, which I’m pretty certain is how he thinks of Congressional testimony.

            But you can try to change my mind…or you can just keep insisting that somehow I’m reading that article merely to confirm my ‘pre-existing theory’…which, as I’ve already told you, I don’t need to do, any more than I need to read articles to confirm the theory of gravity. The ‘theory’ I have is merely the sum total for facts we know about the criminal behavior, and about 1% reasonable conclusions of how that criminal behavior managed to happen by someone who had no motive to lie himself and was employed at the time to mislead people on behalf of Trump. My question is only whether it’s going to be (a) or (b), and I have no ‘theories’ about that beyond the fact the President is usually dumb.

            And, honestly, (c) is just as impeachable as the other two anyway, so I have no idea why that would even change anything. It’s still the President misleading Congress.

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    • WaPo has a story up on some of the background dynamics in play, but one paragraph sorta leaps out at you, grabbing you by the throat:

      While neither Cohen nor his representatives had ever said explicitly that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, Guy Petrillo, Cohen’s attorney, wrote in a memo in advance of his sentencing, “We address the campaign finance and false statements allegations together because both arose from Michael’s fierce loyalty to Client-1. In each case, the conduct was intended to benefit Client-1, in accordance with Client-1’s directives.”

      So, Cohen’s attorney concedes, apparently consistently with the terms of the plea agreement that Cohen made false statements at Trump’s behest. So what’s all the fuss about the BuzzFeed article then? The issue doesn’t appear to be that Trump has suborned perjury (did I spell that right …) since that’s already established insofar as Petrillo’s memo is accurate representation of what his client is pleading to. Could the dispute be that Trump didn’t suborn perjury, as the BuzzFeed article alleges, regarding the Trump Moscow Project specifically? Hard to say, since Cohen has reportedly lied to Congress about the timing and scope of that project.

      Anyway, BuzzFeed stands by its reporting, and Park’s statements – or at least a wide scope reading of those statements – are hard to square with the available evidence.

      ((Caveat: of course, I could be wrong about all this stuff.))

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  6. Jason Leopold’s past reporting:

    When people first started raising questions about Truthout’s report that Karl Rove had been indicted, reporter Jason Leopold took to the radio to suggest that he’d out his sources on the story if it turned out that they were wrong. “These are people that I trust,” Leopold said then. “They are also sources who know full well that if they led me astray, they would no longer be anonymous sources.” So will Leopold out his sources now? Ed Schultz asked Leopold that question on his radio show this afternoon. Leopold said no.


    Before the Rove story:

    Salon removed Leopold’s August 29, 2002 story about Enron from its site after it was discovered that he plagiarized parts from the Financial Times and was unable to provide a copy of an email that was critical to the piece. Leopold’s response? A hysterical rant (linked above) which claimed that Salon’s version of events was “nothing but lies,” and that “At this point, I wonder why Salon would go to great lengths to further twist the knife into my back. I suppose the New York Times will now release their version of the events. I can see the headline now ‘Jason Leopold Must Die.’”

    Columbia Journalism Review

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  7. Reporters think they are triangulating to find the truth, but you are the one placing the vertices of the triangle for them to draw.

    There is actually a term for this: iterative journalism. And there a bunch of new media evangelists who argue that it’s a good thing. Here is Felix Salmon making that argument in regards to the NYTimes’ 2011 tax story on GE: https://archives.cjr.org/the_audit/nyt_fortune_propublica_and_the.php. If you Google the term, you can find a bunch of links on the topic; some saying nice things and some critical.

    Personally, I call BS. I don’t want half a story with bad facts that may be correct “in spirit.” I see how this method benefits blogs and news outles and the advertisers who find them and the journalists who make a living in them, but I don’t see the benefit to me, the consumer.

    The answer for me is that I no longer trust most outlets. I pay attention to the byline and I mentally keep track of which reporters know their beat and are generally trustworthy and which are playing the iterative game.

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    • “The story of Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché Mayan from Guatemala whose autobiography catapulted her to international fame, won her the Nobel Peace Prize and made her an international emblem of the dispossessed indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and their attempt to rebel against the oppression of European conquerors, has now been exposed as a political fabrication, a tissue of lies. It is one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century.

      Equally remarkable, and also indicative of the cultural power of the perpetrators of this hoax, is the fact that the revelation of Menchú’s mendacity has changed nothing. The Nobel committee has already refused to take back her prize, the thousands of college courses that make her book a required text for American students will continue to do so and the editorial writers of the major press institutions have already defended her falsehoods on the same grounds that supporters of Tawana Brawley’s parallel hoax made famous: Even if she’s lying, she’s telling the truth.

      The 1982 autobiography that launched the hoax “I, Rigoberta Menchú,” was actually written by a French leftist, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, wife of Marxist Regis Debray, who provided the foco strategy for Che Guevara’s failed effort to foment a guerrilla war in Bolivia in the 1960s. Debray’s misguided theory got Guevara and an undetermined number of Bolivian peasants killed, and as we shall see is at the root of the tragedies that overwhelmed Menchú and her family.”


      That is where I first heard the term “false but accurate.” This was long before the Dan Rather kerfluffle and I suspect that it goes much further back than this.

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    • Googled it! Hmmm, I think I get the idea and can appreciate the model’s allure: intrepid reporter A uncovers an interesting fact and reports it, motivating reporter B to uncover another interesting fact, which in turn motivates reporter C to discover that reporter A’s claim isn’t accurate, and so on until something like a coherent picture arises tying all those disparate facts and fictions into a coherent narrative everyone regards as “the truth”. I wish it the theory worked better in practice. It’s a cool idea.

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  8. I don’t think any discussion of media is complete without some mention of the run up to the Iraq war, and the gullibility of the access journalists in feeding the lies and distortions that fooled the public.

    I think the term “access journalist” is accurate, or more derisively, “palace courtiers” who see themselves as gossips first, and truth finders second.

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