The problem is so pervasive that “The State Department warns that travelers should have no expectation of privacy," said Richard Engel of NBC. "Even in their hotel rooms. And as we found out, you are especially exposed as soon as you try and communicate with anything.”
That said, the problem might not be precisely what what was reported in the story. More on that in a moment. But first, here's where the story went --
Engel set up two brand new computers and a new mobile phone to test privacy. He got hacked, "almost immediately," adding that "it doesn't take long here for someone to try to tap into your laptop, cellphone or tablet." On NBC Nightly News, he told Brian Williams, "In a minute, hackers were snooping around. The same thing happened with my cellphone -- it was very fast and very professional."
One important thing that struck me immediately which was left out of the story is whether Engel installed any anti-spyware software on his computer, or if it was unprotected. Nonetheless, the report is fascinating and almost "funny" in a "This is so ghastly, I'm glad I'm not there" kind of way. Again, more on all this after the video, but here's the story --
However, I was trading emails with one of my accomplished high-tech friends, and he wrote that he's been talking with several of his security experts about this, and he's told that the these videos were much edited with a lot left out. He said there's a larger story to emerge and that these first videos are somewhat sensationalist with missing important details, and suggested some skepticism,
He didn't go into details, but said there are things left out suggests that the hacking wasn’t as “OMG it just happens with no knowledge!” as it initially looks. (This might be related to my suggestion above that no anti-malware software had been installed.) There's more about the story that appears others are looking into, and so there might be more to come. Though it likely won't get the same attention as this.
To be clear, he wasn't remotely suggesting that there's no problem, just that this particular story might be more attention-getting than the full story is.
And then later in the day, he sent me the follow-up he was referring to. It's a story by Robert Graham on a security blog, titled, "That NBC Story 100% Fraudulent."
The title does strike me as a bit hyperbolic, as are some of the subjective conclusions he draws, but the larger issue of facts are nonetheless pointed and fascinating. And he notes that he has "gleaned" these facts from Kyle Wilhoit, the tech expert in the piece, who has also been sending out Tweets on the subject.
Two important points that Graham makes are:
- The "hack" happens because of the websites they visit (Olympic-themed websites), not their physical location. The results would've been the same in America.
- The phone didn't "get hacked", Richard Engel initiated the download of a hostile Android app onto his phone.
Graham writes that the story is not about WiFi in Sochi. The story, he says, "was about visiting websites remotely. Thus, the claim of the story that you'll get hacked immediately upon turning on your computers is fraudulent. The only thing that can be confirmed by the story is 'don't let Richard Engel borrow your phone'."
You can read the full article here.
It’s all quite intriguing. I’m a bit more interested to what that tech guy in the piece, Kyle Wilhoit, has to say in a more tempered tone, though, than the writer of the article. It’s not about disputing facts, but about not adding presumptions. (If you read the article, you'll see the Machiavellian motivations he ascribes to Richard Engel.) Richard Engle is a brilliant, honored, courageous foreign correspondent (who, among other things, was kidnapped last year covering the Middle East). He may have gotten things wrong in this story -- he may have screwed up -- but the motivations the article subjectively imposes on him strike me as very unfair, without me (and the writer) knowing more. It’s one thing to say, “They were wrong.” It’s another to say, “They were wrong because…”
Still, it's interesting.