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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
They weren’t the first victims of a mass shooting the Florida radiologist had seen—but their wounds were radically different.
As I opened the CT scan last week to read the next case, I was baffled. The history simply read “gunshot wound.” I have been a radiologist in one of the busiest trauma centers in the nation for 13 years, and have diagnosed thousands of handgun injuries to the brain, lung, liver, spleen, bowel, and other vital organs. I thought that I knew all that I needed to know about gunshot wounds, but the specific pattern of injury on my computer screen was one that I had seen only once before.
In a typical handgun injury that I diagnose almost daily, a bullet leaves a laceration through an organ like the liver. To a radiologist, it appears as a linear, thin, grey bullet track through the organ. There may be bleeding and some bullet fragments.
The CNN-hosted event highlighted the voices of student activists, and showed why the gun debate might actually be different this time around.
I was 10 years old when, in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students at Columbine High School, in what was then the most-deadly school shooting in American history. What I can recall most from my childhood mind from the time aren’t the gruesome details in the news reports or even the sense of dread that gripped students and teachers across the country, but the feeling that something central about the country had changed. Something about America had shifted, and it was significant enough that even a child’s understanding could grasp it.
Almost two decades later, after multiple mass shootings and dozens of slain children, it’s clear that what changed wasn’t the mobilization of a country to stop events like Columbine, but the beginning of the normalization of those events. Now, even the fervor of post-massacre gun debates has been fraught with fatalism. Every debate is the same, without any denouement. Advocates cry out for common-sense reforms, NRA-backed politicians decry those measures, donor lists are released, and people complain about the politicization of tragedy. But nothing ever really happens. The gun debate has become a moribund ritual.
The Canadian prime minister’s trip could nonetheless help him with a voting bloc he covets.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t hidden his fondness for foreign leaders. He has embraced them, tweeted at them, and sent them birthday wishes—all in an effort to make India a global player in international affairs. So when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he of the perfect coiffure, high-voltage smile, and beautiful family arrived in New Delhi this week for a state visit, it should have been a perfect photo-op. Instead, neither Modi nor any of his senior ministers showed up to receive the Trudeaus.
Trudeau has smiled his way through India, however, meeting with business executives, signing billions of dollars worth of business deals, posing for photographs with Bollywood actors, and donning Indian attire befitting his own Indian wedding reception. The Indians, for their part, have denied the Canadian prime minister is being snubbed (one unnamed official went as far as to call it “protocol”). But a snub it is—and the diplomatic brush-off has its roots in an Indian separatist movement from the 1980s and present-day Canadian domestic politics.
The NRA executive vice president’s pugnacious speech on Thursday provoked an indignant response—exactly as he’d aimed to do.
It’s been a strange few days in the American gun debate—with teenagers shaking an otherwise moribund discourse into new territory, senators being cowed on national television, and President Trump edging toward minor gun regulations. In the wake of the shooting, the Conservative Political Action Conference decided not to put National Rife Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre on its list of speakers.*
But LaPierre spoke, and it was a stemwinder. Over the course of 35 minutes, LaPierre was combative and provocative. At a moment when students and others are challenging the gun consensus, he opted to escalate rather than conciliate.
“As usual, the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain,” LaPierre said of last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “The elites do not care one whit about America’s school system and schoolchildren. If they truly cared, what they would do is they would protect them. For them it is not a safety issue, it is a political issue.”
The revolutionary ideals of Black Panther’s profound and complex villain have been twisted into a desire for hegemony.
The following article contains major spoilers.
Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.
But it is first and foremost an African American love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.
Many seniors are stuck with lives of never-ending work—a fate that could befall millions in the coming decades.
CORONA, Calif.—Roberta Gordon never thought she’d still be alive at age 76. She definitely didn’t think she’d still be working. But every Saturday, she goes down to the local grocery store and hands out samples, earning $50 a day, because she needs the money.
“I’m a working woman again,” she told me, in the common room of the senior apartment complex where she now lives, here in California’s Inland Empire. Gordon has worked dozens of odd jobs throughout her life—as a house cleaner, a home health aide, a telemarketer, a librarian, a fundraiser—but at many times in her life, she didn’t have a steady job that paid into Social Security. She didn’t receive a pension. And she definitely wasn’t making enough to put aside money for retirement.
“There are some who believe being relevant means throwing a hand grenade in the middle of the conference.”
On July 28, 2015, Representative Mark Meadows, a Republican from North Carolina virtually unknown outside his district, quietly catalyzed a coup against then-Speaker John Boehner. By filing a motion to vacate the chair—a parliamentary maneuver that hadn’t been used since 1910—Meadows triggered a process to put Boehner’s speakership up for a vote, rallying many of his fellow conservatives behind the cause.
That vote never happened. Sensing an uncertain outcome, Boehner accelerated his already existent plans to retire from Congress. Regardless of whether Meadows’s motion was an act of pure showmanship or a principled stand—or something else—one thing seemed certain in the aftermath: The Freedom Caucus member had acted deliberately and even cautiously. Meadows “spent months weighing whether to launch the attack,” The New Yorker reported in 2015. “It was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” Meadows told the magazine. “It was a lonely period of time here on Capitol Hill. Even my closest friends didn’t necessarily think it was the right move.”
The justice’s consistent pro-gun arguments fail to reconcile rights with their lived consequences.
Never let it be said that Justice Clarence Thomas is overly concerned with appearances. Witness his release of a passionately pro-gun opinion, less than a week after a school shooting took 17 lives at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
As near as I can tell, only two subjects excite this most phlegmatic of justices: the death penalty and the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” I was present in Court two years ago when Thomas broke his 11-year silence on the bench—to ask Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Ilana Eisenstein why a misdemeanor conviction for domestic abuse should deprive the abuser of the right to possess firearms: “Can you think of another constitutional right that can be suspended based upon a misdemeanor violation of a state law?”
The microscopic kind, not the scary, slimy monster type
On the night before Halloween in 1938, a strange story crackled over radios across the United States. An announcer interrupted the evening’s regular programming for a “special bulletin,” which went on to describe an alien invasion in a field in New Jersey, complete with panicked eyewitness accounts and sounds of gunfire. The story was, of course, fake, a dramatization of The War of The Worlds, the science-fiction novel published by H. G. Wells in 1898. But not all listeners knew that. The intro to the segment was quite vague, and those who tuned in a few minutes into the show found no suggestion that what they were hearing wasn’t true.
The exact nature of the reaction of these unlucky listeners has been debated in the decades since the broadcast. Some say thousands of people dashed out of their homes and into the streets in terror, convinced the country was under attack by Martians. Others say there was no such mass panic. Regardless of the actual scale of the reaction, the event helped cement an understanding that would later be perpetuated in science-fiction television shows and films: Humans, if and when they encounter aliens, probably aren’t going to react well.
The rapper’s charming “God’s Plan” video shows him donating a million dollars around Miami—and earning something for himself.
Dip into the strangely hypnotic filmgenre thatdocumentsthe Publishers Clearing House delivering jumbo checks to people, andyou begin to notice a pattern. When the “Prize Patrol” first knocks on a door, the sweepstakes winner might gasp and hesitantly smile at the cameras and the balloons, recognizing the familiarscript they’ve suddenly been inserted into. But it’s when the money is actually presented, and the amount of the prize revealed, that the crying begins. As a viewer, you feel happy for the winner. You feel gratitude for the Clearing House. And you start wondering what that jumbo check could do for you.
Drake’s new video for “God’s Plan,” the No. 1 song in the country, bottles and elevates that Publishers Clearing House feeling. In it, the Toronto superstar distributes his million-dollar production budget to people around Miami—by telling all the shoppers in a Sabor Tropical Supermarket that everything on the shelves are free, by presenting a scholarship check to an unsuspecting student, by giving gift cards to women at a shelter, and more. The double-takes are the best parts. In one moment, Drake sidles up to a family who’s sitting on a ledge. One of the kids notices the rapper sitting next to her, and shrieks. Drake smiles and hands the family a wad of cash. Star-struck thrill melts into a more tender emotion. The family members cover their eyes, and they hug.