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. His latest book is China Airborne.
“I hope that my story will help you understand the methods of Russian operatives in Washington and how they use U.S. enablers to achieve major foreign policy goals without disclosing those interests,” Browder writes.
The financier Bill Browder has emerged as an unlikely central player in the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney Browder hired to investigate official corruption, died in Russian custody in 2009. Congress subsequently imposed sanctions on the officials it held responsible for his death, passing the Magnitsky Act in 2012. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government retaliated, among other ways, by suspending American adoptions of Russian children.
Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who secured a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, was engaged in a campaign for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act, and raised the subject of adoptions in that meeting. That’s put the spotlight back on Browder’s long campaign for Kremlin accountability, and against corruption—a campaign whose success has irritated Putin and those around him.
For the past few decades, the unstoppable increase in college tuition has been a fact of life, like death and taxes. The sticker price of American college increased nearly 400 percent in the last 30 years, while median household income growth was relatively flat. Student debt soared to more than $1 trillion, the result of loans to cover the difference.
Several people—with varyingdegreesof expertisein higher-ed economics—have predicted that it’s all a bubble, destined to burst. Now after decades of expansion, just about every meaningful statistic—including the number of college students, the growth of tuition costs, and even the total number of colleges—is going down, or at least growing more slowly.
Activists on the right have been pushing to repeal the Affordable Care Act since 2010—only to see some Republicans defend the law once they got the power to get rid of it.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have repealed major parts of the Affordable Care Act, including the law’s individual and employer mandates, the Medicaid expansion, tax credits, and taxes. It was the same measure that passed the Senate through reconciliation in 2015 and was ultimately vetoed by President Obama.
After failing to pass the Obamacare replacement plan during a vote late on Tuesday night, the Senate moved on to the repeal-only vote. This time around, repeal could only afford to lose two senators, and it did. Actually, it lost seven, including three who had voted for repeal bill in 2015. Conservative groups see the vote’s failure as the ultimate political hypocrisy—but Republican senators maintain that they’re representing their constituents’ best interests.
The Congressional Budget Office offered an estimate of Republicans’ last-ditch attempt to roll back Obamacare.
With eight hours left of debate in the Senate reconciliation process, it appears all of the Republicans’ chances of repealing (or replacing) Obamacare will come down to a single option: the “skinny repeal.”
Not much is known about the skinny repeal, however. At the end of Wednesday’s debate session, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer blasted Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for keeping the text of the bill secret, and promised that Democrats would offer no further amendments until the secret plan was revealed. What is known about the ace up McConnell’s sleeve is that it would likely eliminate Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates, along with some of its taxes, but the specifics and the broader impacts of such a bill are as of yet unknown.
The vote he cast, more than the speech he gave, will help define his legacy.
The effort to repeal Barack Obama’s health-care bill is not over, and neither presumably is the public career of John McCain. But each crossed an important threshold yesterday, and Senator McCain gave us a clearer idea of who he is and what he stands for.
The repeal effort isn’t over, because debate and further voting is now under way to determine whether the bill will pass and, more basically, to define what it would actually do. McCain will have more votes to cast, on this measure and others, and it’s possible that in the end he will turn against this bill because of its provisions (whatever they turn out to be) or because of the rushed and secretive process that led to it. Just this afternoon, McCain voted No on a “straight repeal” bill that would eliminate Obamacare without any replacement.
A new study finds that believing society is fair can lead disadvantaged adolescents to act out and engage in risky behavior.
Brighton Park is a predominantly Latino community on the southwest side of Chicago. It’s a neighborhood threatened by poverty, gang violence, ICE raids, and isolation—in a city where income, race, and zip code can determine access to jobs, schools, healthy food, and essential services. It is against this backdrop that the Chicago teacher Xian Franzinger Barrett arrived at the neighborhood’s elementary school in 2014.
Recognizing the vast economic and racial inequalities his students faced, he chose what some might consider a radical approach for his writing and social-studies classes, weaving in concepts such as racism, classism, oppression, and prejudice. Barrett said it was vital to reject the oft-perpetuated narrative that society is fair and equal to address students’ questions and concerns about their current conditions. And Brighton Elementary’s seventh- and eighth-graders quickly put the lessons to work—confronting the school board over inequitable funding, fighting to install a playground, and creating a classroom library focused on black and Latino authors.
The Arizona Republican is betting his Senate seat on the political appeal of decency—but can that pay off in Trump’s America?
The constituents filing into the Mesa Convention Center one evening in mid-April for the Republican senator Jeff Flake’s town hall had a decidedly un-Republican look. Tattoos and political T-shirts abounded. Activists stood near the entrance distributing stickers, flyers, and other paraphernalia of the resistance and urging attendees to get loud. While chants of “No stupid wall!” and “Health care for all!” echoed through the auditorium, a young woman in a chicken costume wandered the perimeter, clucking and posing for selfies in an act of protest whose meaning remained mysterious to me even after I asked her about it (“Jeff Flake is George Dubya’s chicken,” she said).
Flake couldn’t see any of this from backstage, but he knew that a hostile crowd likely awaited him. The early months of the Trump presidency had inflamed the grassroots left, and Republican lawmakers across the country had lately found themselves standing awkwardly in rooms like this one while liberal voters berated them. Flake is up for reelection next year, and some of his campaign advisers—wanting to avoid the kind of contentious scene that might end up in an attack ad—had suggested that he skip public forums for a while, as many of his colleagues were doing. But he insisted on going ahead.
Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, and George Saunders are among the authors in contention for the British literary prize.
The 13 novels longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, were announced Thursday morning. Among them are some of the biggest names in fiction (Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Paul Auster, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders) as well as two first-time novelists: Fiona Mozley, a 29-year-old from northern England, and Emily Fridlund, a Cornell professor whose coming-of-age tale History of Wolves was released earlier this year.
Roy’s inclusion on the list comes 20 years after her first novel, The God of Small Things, won the Man Booker in 1997. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her long-awaited follow-up, was released earlier this year. Writing for The Atlantic, the critic Parul Sehgal called it a “fascinating mess,” a “hulking, sprawling story” about two characters, a trans woman living in Delhi, and an architect-activist. “Roy is a champion at waking the neighbors, at getting our attention, and as an offering, this book is a beautiful act of witness,” Sehgal writes. “But harnessing our attention—getting us to see as well as to look—that is perhaps a different, and more intricate, matter.”
Exclusion leaves the military weaker and the country more divided.
President Donald Trump issued a ruling on Wednesday outlawing military service by people who do not conform to a binary gender system.
“Please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” he wrote in a string of tweets. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
Trump previously promised to be an advocate for transgender people, writing during the campaign, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
A ride malfunction caused multiple passengers to be ejected around 20 to 30 feet in the air.
A ride malfunction at the state fair in Columbus, Ohio resulted in the death of at least one passenger on Wednesday. Locals officials report that at least seven others were wounded, with five of them in critical condition and two others expected to recover. The incident occurred at around 7:24 p.m. local time when passengers on the Fire Ball ride were ejected around 20 to 30 feet into the air at a high speed, before falling to the ground. Witnesses have since reported that a passenger row detached from the ride while in motion—an account that is corroborated by online video footage.
In a statement released on Twitter, Ohio Governor John Kasich said he had ordered a full investigation into the incident and asked for all of the fair’s rides to be shut down pending additional safety inspections. “I am terribly saddened by this incident,” Kasich said. At a press conference on Wednesday, he again lamented the loss of life and declared that “we will get to the bottom of this.” “The fair is about the best things in life and then tonight, with this accident, it becomes a terrible, terrible tragedy,” Kasich said.