As email, documents, and almost every aspect of our professional and personal lives moves onto the “cloud”—remote servers we rely on to store, guard, and make available all of our data whenever and from wherever we want them, all the time and into eternity—a brush with disaster reminds the author and his wife just how vulnerable those data can be. A trip to the inner fortress of Gmail, where Google developers recovered six years’ worth of hacked and deleted e‑mail, provides specific advice on protecting and backing up data now—and gives a picture both consoling and unsettling of the vulnerabilities we can all expect to face in the future.
On April 13 of this year, a Wednesday, my wife got up later than usual and didn’t check her e‑mail until around 8:30 a.m. The previous night, she had put her computer to “sleep,” rather than shutting it down. When she opened it that morning to the Gmail account that had been her main communications center for more than six years, it seemed to be responding very slowly and jerkily. She hadn’t fully restarted the computer in several days, and thought that was the problem. So she closed all programs, rebooted the machine, and went off to make coffee and have some breakfast.
When she came back to her desk, half an hour later, she couldn’t log into Gmail at all. By that time, I was up and looking at e‑mail, and we both quickly saw what the real problem was. In my inbox I found a message purporting to be from her, followed by a quickly proliferating stream of concerned responses from friends and acquaintances, all about the fact that she had been “mugged in Madrid.” The account had seemed sluggish earlier that morning because my wife had tried to use it at just the moment a hacker was taking it over and changing its settings—including the password, so that she couldn’t log in again. The bogus message that had just gone out to me and everyone else in her Gmail contact list was this:
From: Deb Fallows
Date: Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 8:45 AM
now this might come as a suprise to you,but I made a quick trip to Madrid in Spain and was mugged.My bag,valuables,credit cards and passport all gone.The embassy has cooperated by issuing a temporary passport.I need funds to settle outstanding hotel bills,ticket and other expenses.
To be honest,i don’t have money with me at the moment. I’ve made contact with my bank but the best they could do was to send me a new card in the mail which will take 2-4 working days to arrive here from DC. I need you to lend me some Money to sort my self out of this predicament, i will pay back once i get this over with because i need to make a last minute flight.
Western Union or MoneyGram is the fastest option to wire funds to me. Let me know if you need my details(Full names/location) to effect a transfer. You can reach me via hotel’s desk phone and the number is, +34 981 600916867.
I’m using her real e‑mail address because at this stage there’s no point in “protecting” it. Someone had obviously taken over her account and was using it as a crude spamming tool—or at least what we considered crude. Who hadn’t seen countless messages like this before? Which of her friends would really think that Deb would capitalize “Money,” type a paragraph’s worth of sentences with no spaces separating them, or say that she had gone to “Madrid in Spain”? And, indeed, the great majority of notes were warnings that her account had been hacked and was being used to send out fraud-spam; some included gratuitous tips about the need to be more careful in online life.
But a touching handful of the notes came from people who took the plea at face value. They wrote to me; they replied to Deb’s account; a few even phoned from South America, Asia, the Midwest, and Australia to find out how they could help. That was the first indication that this would be more than a minor nuisance. What if some of them actually sent cash?
The more serious sign of the potential scale of our problems came later in the day. Google offers a variety of automated ways for users to regain control of Gmail and other accounts they think have been hacked. The automated routines, plus an online forum moderated by Google employees, are the only help Google offers. With hundreds of millions of active Gmail accounts to manage—that’s as specific as Google will be about its user base—operating in 54 languages worldwide, the relative handful of human beings on Gmail’s support staff could not even pretend to offer live one-on-one service. The same is true of Yahoo, Microsoft’s Hotmail, Facebook, Skype, eBay, and the other big operators of “cloud”-based systems.
As a reminder: in cloud-based systems, users turn the management and protection of crucial data and services over to third parties, and then call up information as necessary via the Internet. For individuals, the appeal is that e-mail held “in the cloud” by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, et cetera, is available wherever there is an Internet connection, rather than being lodged on any one machine. If a corporation is large enough, it may operate its own internal cloud, or turn to large-scale suppliers like Amazon—which has a cloud-server business apart from its familiar retail functions—to store and protect data.
The first and easiest automated step was to fill out a password-reset form. Doing so prompted Google to send reset instructions to the mobile-phone number or alternate e‑mail address listed as “recovery options” for Deb’s account. That alternate e‑mail account, with AOL, was no longer active, and in any case whoever had taken over her Gmail settings seemed to have removed or changed the information. The next line of defense was to submit a form reporting that an account had been taken over or compromised. We had sent in that form within 30 minutes of discovering the problem, giving my Gmail address as the new contact point. Meanwhile my wife logged into a secondary Gmail account she had previously created, and began writing to friends and family as quickly as she could to explain what was going on.
While we waited for results from Google, we began to hear, by phone and via our other e‑mail accounts, from people who had written back to Deb “in Madrid” to find out more about her predicament. They had all quickly gotten responses, from an account meant to look similar to hers but with a one-letter difference: email@example.com. We learned later that, as a predictable part of a hacking attack on Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or any other e‑mail service, an attacker will change the settings so that all incoming mail is forwarded to a new, similar-seeming address—and then deleted from the real account, to make it harder for the real user to know, later on, who had responded to the scam. And whoever was on the other end of the exchange had gathered at least enough personal info to sustain a round or two of exchanges with concerned friends. For instance, Deb’s mother in Florida, 89 years old, had written back immediately to say that the message was a fraud, signing the note “Mom.” Her message went instead to debbfallows, who sent this reply:
From: “Deb Fallows”
Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2011 14:23:23 +0000
Subject: Re: terrible scam
I am too old to raise a false alarm. I was mugged last night under gun point.
I need €1,500. Below are my details you for the transfer,kindly get this done from any Western union office close to you:
Receiver Name: Deborah Fallows
Don’t forget to email the Money control number(MTCN) to enable me pick up the funds. I promise to pay back once I return to DC. Expecting to hear from you.
Other than this,how are you doing?
We thought that “other than this” was a nice touch. Other friends who replied got other variations, all with the same basic social-engineering info—the knowledge that our regular home was “in DC,” and that I was her spouse. A friend in New York was ready to send money, if he could only talk with Deb on the phone to be sure. His exchange with the hacker finally petered out this way:
I had to check out of the hotel due to accumulated bills. I am in a cyber cafe at the moment,sorry I cannot afford a call card.
So far, this was embarrassing, and possibly costly to the most openhearted or trusting among our acquaintances, but not worse than that. We’d returned only a few days earlier from a two-month stay in China. Perhaps this was one more predictable aftereffect, like my chronic cough? Things seemed to be improving when, around 2 p.m., a message from Google’s help system arrived in my account, with instructions on how Deb could at last reset her password and regain control of her information.
She did so, and logged into her Gmail account with enormous relief, which lasted perhaps five seconds. When she looked at her Inbox, and her Archives, and even the Trash and Spam folders in her account, she found—absolutely nothing. Of her allocated 7 gigabytes of storage, 0.0 gigabytes were in use, versus the 4+ gigabytes shown the day before. Six years’ worth of correspondence and everything that went with it were gone. All the notes, interviews, recollections, and attached photos from our years of traveling through China. All the correspondence with and about her father in the last years of his life. The planning for our sons’ weddings; the exchanges she’d had with subjects, editors, and readers of her recent book; the accounting information for her projects; the travel arrangements and appointments she had for tomorrow and next week and next month; much of the incidental-expense data for the income-tax return I was about to file—all of this had been erased. It had not just been put in the “Trash” folder but permanently deleted.
In some other circumstances, we might have had a calmly reasoned discussion about whether it made sense to have so much emotionally and practically precious information in a single, now evidently vulnerable, place. Even in these real circumstances, we realized that with enough persistent effort she could have eventually rewoven parts of the missing fabric. Her mother still had some of the messages Deb had sent about her father, I had some of what she’d written and done in China; bit by bit she might get some things back. For the moment, all we could do was clean up some of the traces of the attack that remained in her account—the command to forward all incoming messages to DebbFallows, the bogus e‑mail address and phone numbers for the password-recovery routines—and fill out another form on the Google help site, this one to request an automated recovery of deleted e‑mail.
It was at about this time that I started thinking about the ramifications of this problem beyond our own situation, desperate as that situation felt to us just then. Through more than 30 years of computing, I’d had my ups and downs with data storage. My very first computer, a Processor Technology SOL-20, was nearly incinerated along with all of its electronic contents when a lightning bolt hit our house in the early 1980s. (The contents included the notes and drafts for my book National Defense, which fortunately I’d printed out on paper.) Hard disks fail; laptops get dropped. But I’d never before imagined the chance of total, catastrophic, years’ worth of loss. This was a loss whose sweeping magnitude was possible only because my wife had entrusted her data exclusively to the most professional of pros: Google’s operation in the cloud. If we had thought that data security was strictly up to us, we’d have made backups of some sort to limit the potential damage—much as we would lay in our own firewood and keep our own chickens and cows to be sure we’d never freeze or starve if normal supplies were cut off. In my own version of Depression-style thinking, and with that lightning strike in mind, I had always made triply redundant backups of anything that mattered to me, including e‑mail. Local on-disk backups of Gmail archives, via programs like Eudora and Thunderbird—or both. Online backups of those local backups, through SugarSync and Dropbox—and then more local backups on my other machines. But my wife had trusted the cloud and Google. And now?
Her move to the cloud had coincided with the larger and irreversible shift of business, personal, governmental, and every other sort of activity to the cloud. The shift is irreversible because it brings so many advantages. Who would go back to searching for addresses on paper maps after using online mapping services? Needing to save and file canceled paper checks rather than inspecting them online, or doing a thousand other chores in pre-cloud form? In addition to these corporate and public services, whose users are increasingly conducting their business and storing their data in the cloud rather than on paper, our personal data has moved to the cloud as well, with the premise that we’ll be able to retrieve and work on our correspondence, our contacts, our photos and documents, from any computer connected to the Internet. But, of course, the more we rely on the cloud, the more we expose ourselves to its vulnerabilities. These include the breakdowns that affect any complex system. When much of Washington had a multiday power outage after a snowstorm last January, the loss of Internet service seemed almost as crippling as the loss of light and heat. They also include deliberate attacks—for criminal gain, spying, or sabotage—that are sure to increase as the value of cloud-based information does. “Where the money is, that is where the criminals will go,” a former National Security Agency official named Ken Silva, who now works as an online-security specialist for Booz Allen Hamilton, told me this summer. “Where the sensitive information is concentrated, that is where the spies will go. This is just a fact of life.” The more important online storage becomes, the more relentlessly it will be under attack.
For instance: Chastened by my wife’s experience, I decided to make my online passwords “stronger,” and to shift to an online storage site to manage them. The following week, that site—LastPass.com—was itself hacked and some of its data stolen. (I still use it, as I’ll explain.) At around the same time, the anonymous hacker group LulzSec, operating under the motto “Laughing at your security since 2011” (the first part of the name is phonetic for “LOLs”; the second stands for “security”), started functioning as a kind of tech-world version of WikiLeaks, penetrating corporate sites and then publishing large numbers of usernames and passwords.
Sony, Citibank, Veterans Affairs, major hospitals, tech firms like Intel, Cisco, and Google—I stopped keeping track of the institutions that announced intrusions, after security experts told me that essentially every major organization suffers ongoing attacks. But I used the shock of my wife’s experience as an occasion to educate myself about the vulnerabilities and new rules of operation in the cloud era, as they involve corporations and institutions as well as individuals. What I found is not all good news, but it is better than I might have feared. It includes some hopeful signs about the way corporations and governments are defending their data, and manageable practical steps individuals can take to avoid scares like the one my wife had that day.
I say “scare” rather than “trauma” because—to skip ahead in the story—my wife eventually got her e‑mail back, through Google’s recent “Undeletion Project,” as I called it when I learned of it. But it was a long time before that happened, and our attitude toward Google got much worse before it got better. I concentrate on Google here because that’s where we had our problem, and more generally because of its exceptional international role. But everyone I spoke with there and at other organizations emphasized that our experiences with Gmail—the brush with disaster and subsequent revelation of the gulf between data professionals’ view of reality and what the rest of us assume—were not exceptional at all but were variations on a cloud-wide theme. And our experience and revelation would apply to most people using most online services, including Apple’s pending “iCloud” services and Microsoft’s continuing movement of Windows services to the cloud.
I felt antsy rather than sleepy on that first night after the attack, as I kept fielding calls and e‑mails from friends and spending time on hold trying to change our credit-card numbers. So I was still at the computer a little after 2 a.m., monitoring both of our e‑mail accounts, when Google’s recovery team sent its response to our “My e‑mail is missing” form. I’ve boldfaced the parts that jumped out at me:
From: The Google Team
Date: Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 2:01 AM
Subject: Re: [#791225671] (no subject)
We have processed your request to recover mail that may have been inappropriately purged from your Gmail account. Any previously deleted messages that we were able to recover will now be in your account in a newly added label called ‘recovered
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. He, and his wife Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the forthcoming book, Our Towns.
Will Toronto turn its residents into Alphabet’s experiment? The answer has implications for cities everywhere.
Quayside is a nondescript, 12-acre chunk of land on the southern edge of Toronto’s downtown. It’s just three miles from my apartment, but getting there takes almost an hour by subway, bus, and foot. When I finally arrive at 333 Lake Shore Boulevard East on a windy day in early January, I find a vacant parking lot full of snow. The abandoned Victory Soya Mills silos loom at its edge—a remnant of the city’s industrial heyday. The plot is half of the future site of Sidewalk Toronto, a “neighborhood built from the internet up” by Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs. Lake Ontario is frozen and it’s colder than the surface of Mars the day I go to look at the site.
It’s a far cry from the vision that fills the Sidewalk Toronto webpage, where a crisp video shot on a sunny day makes the Victory silos look cheerful and full of potential. Torontonians in puffer vests and toques describe a vibrant city bursting at the seams. Toronto’s population grew by 4.5 percent between 2011 and 2016. The city tolerates a high cost of living and a low rental-vacancy rate.
Last weekend’s security conference in Munich was a stark reminder that this class has nothing of substance to offer a world in turmoil.
Eighty years ago in Munich, French and British politicians handed Czechoslovakia over to Adolf Hitler’s carving knife. Twenty-five years later, a German veteran of the ensuing war founded a conference in Munich that, in its own way, was designed to ensure that such a mistake would never reoccur. That veteran, Ewald von Kleist, came from a distinguished Prussian military family; he served as an officer in the Wehrmacht, had opposed Hitler, and participated actively in a plot against him. He was sent to a prison camp, and was lucky to have escaped execution.
The conference was originally called Wehrkunde (loosely translated as “military affairs”), and since 1963 it has met almost every year in Munich. The picturesque old Bayerischer Hof Hotel, where the event is held each year, becomes a seething mass of nearly 700 politicians, businesspeople, pundits, and officers, all eyed coldly and shoved out of the way by squads of contemptuous bodyguards. Attendees not eminent enough to have reserved seating often cannot elbow their way to the policy wonk mosh pit that the conference floor morphs into. The bathrooms can barely handle their traffic, and the hotel takes on the moist warmth and stale air of an aging high school gym. But still they come, now in the many hundreds, slowed by the officious motorcades of the truly important, trudging past half a dozen security cordons manned by thousands of vigilant German police.
A new study explores a strange paradox: In countries that empower women, they are less likely to choose math and science professions.
Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.
Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “STEM,” as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.
According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”
The path to its revival lies in self-sacrifice, and in placing collective interests ahead of the narrowly personal.
The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world’s biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago. Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday’s dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise. I’m in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I’m now writing is What Was Liberalism.
But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely. Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism’s long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.
They encourage profligate spending and help dictators burnish their prestige. Who needs them?
Other than fuel corruption, make countries spend pointlessly and profligately, inflame nationalist sentiment, act as onanistic stand-ins for geopolitical tensions, and cloak authoritarian leaders in legitimacy, what have the Olympics ever done for us?
It is my real and very honest question every two years: What are the Olympics good for? Why do we continue to have them? Certainly for the athletes participating they can represent the pinnacle of a career worth of hard work; maybe even a life’s ambition realized. But for the rest of us, what is the point? Aside from the temporary flash of sumptuous spectacle, there’s little good that ever comes of the Games. If anything, they exacerbate some of the worst of human nature.
Digital stardust won’t magically make future cities more affordable or resilient.
The term “smart city” is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. “Smart” is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists. To deem yourself “smart” is to make the NIMBYites and market-force people look stupid.
Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.
London also has a large urban-management bureaucracy who emit the proper smart-city buzzwords and have even invented some themselves. The language of Smart City is always Global Business English, no matter what town you're in.
Tech analysts are prone to predicting utopia or dystopia. They’re worse at imagining the side effects of a firm's success.
The U.S economy is in the midst of a wrenching technological transformation that is fundamentally changing the way people sleep, work, eat, shop, love, read, and interact.
At least, that’s one interpretation.
A second story of this age of technological transformation says that it’s mostly a facade—that the last 30 years have been a productivity bust and little has changed in everyday life, aside from the way everyone reads and watches videos. People wanted flying cars and got Netflix binges instead.
Let’s call these the Disrupt Story and the Dud Story of technology. When a new company, app, or platform emerges, it’s common for analysts to divide into camps—Disrupt vs. Dud—with some yelping that the new thing will change everything and others yawning with the expectation that traditionalism will win out.
The outrage directed against the New York Times writer Bari Weiss is the latest illustration of a culture that undermines the causes it seeks to advance.
One of America’s best attributes wasn’t fully real to me until I studied abroad in Seville, Spain, with Asian American classmates. Their answers to the question “Where are you from?” were often met with confusion by locals, who had trouble even conceiving of a nation without an ethnic conception of citizenship. As a Californian, I knew not only that people of Asian descent were as American as white people like me, but that many of their ancestors arrived before mine. And I saw why Americans who don’t grasp those truths offend.
Another of America’s best attributes concerns those who immigrate here. People who become U.S. citizens later in life—as did Albert Einstein, Desi Arnez, and Patrick Ewing—are no less American, no more “other,” than the native born. In fact, when my friend Andrew Sullivan was finally granted U.S. citizenship, as well as when efforts began to secure legal protections for undocumented immigrants brought here as children, I realized that my own conception about what it means to be an American is even broader than the legal definition: I’d long considered people like Andrew as well as those kids to be “one of us.”
Trump’s gravest responsibility is to defend the United States from foreign attack—and he’s done nothing to fulfill it.
As the rest of America mourns the victims of the Parkland, Florida, massacre, President Trump took to Twitter.
Not for him the rituals of grief. He is too consumed by rage and resentment. He interrupted his holidaying schedule at Mar-a-Lago only briefly, for a visit to a hospital where some of the shooting victims were treated. He posed afterward for a grinning thumbs-up photo op. Pain at another’s heartbreak—that emotion is for losers, apparently.
Having failed at one presidential duty, to speak for the nation at times of national tragedy, Trump resumed shirking an even more supreme task: defending the nation against foreign attack.
Last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian persons and three entities that conspired to violate federal election law, to the benefit of Trump and Republican congressional candidates. This is not the whole of the story by any means. This Mueller indictment references only Russian operations on Facebook. It does not deal with the weaponization of hacked information via WikiLeaks. Or the reports that the Russians funneled millions of dollars of election spending through the NRA’s political action committees. But this indictment does show enough to answer some questions about the scale and methods of the Russian intervention—and pose a new question, the most important of them all.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”