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Twitter hacking spree sets off alarm bells

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(Last Updated On: July 16, 2020)

The extraordinary hacking spree that hit Twitter on Wednesday, leading it to briefly muzzle some of its most widely followed accounts, is drawing questions about the platform’s security and resilience in the run-up to the US presidential election.

Twitter said late Wednesday hackers obtained control of employee credentials to hijack accounts including those of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama, reality television star Kim Kardashian, and tech billionaire and Tesla founder Elon Musk.

In a series of tweets, the company said: “We detected what we believe to be a coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools.”

The hackers then “used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf.”

The company statements confirmed the fears of security experts that the service itself – rather than users – had been compromised.

Twitter’s role as a critical communications platform for political candidates and public officials, including President Donald Trump, has led to fears that hackers could wreak havoc with the November 3 presidential election or otherwise compromise national security.

Adam Conner, vice president for technology policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank, said on Twitter: “This is bad on July 15 but would be infinitely worse on November 3rd.”

Posing as celebrities and the wealthy, the hackers asked followers to send the digital currency bitcoin to a series of addresses. 

By evening, 400 bitcoin transfers were made worth a combined US$120,000. Half of the victims had funds in US bitcoin exchanges, a quarter in Europe and a quarter in Asia, according to forensics company Elliptic.

Those transfers left history that could help investigators identify the perpetrators of the hack. The financial damage may be limited because multiple exchanges blocked other payments after their own Twitter accounts were targeted.

The damage to Twitter’s reputation may be more serious. Most troubling to some was how long the company took to stop the bad tweets.

“Twitter’s response to this hack was astonishing. It’s the middle of the day in San Francisco, and it takes them five hours to get a handle on the incident,” said Dan Guido, CEO of security company Trail of Bits.

An even worse scenario was that the bitcoin fraud was a distraction for more serious hacking, such as harvesting the direct messages of the account holders.

Twitter said it was not yet certain what the hackers may have done beyond sending the bitcoin messages.

“We’re looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed and will share more here as we have it,” the company said.

Mass compromises of Twitter accounts via theft of employee credentials or problems with third-party applications that many users employ have occurred before.

Wednesday’s hack was the worst to date. Several users with two-factor authentication – a security procedure that helps prevent break-in attempts – said they were powerless to stop it.

“If the hackers do have access to the backend of Twitter, or direct database access, there is nothing potentially stopping them from pilfering data in addition to using this tweet-scam as a distraction,” said Michael Borohovski, director of software engineering at security company Synopsys.

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Fears of Taliban takeover post troop withdrawal are overblown: Khalilzad

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(Last Updated On: May 18, 2021)

The US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said Tuesday predictions that the Taliban will quickly overrun Afghan government forces and conquer Kabul once U.S. and coalition forces have withdrawn are unduly pessimistic.

Testifying before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Khalilzad said: “I personally believe that the statements that their (Afghan) forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken.”

His comments came as committee members expressed concern that President Joe Biden’s decision to fully withdraw all troops by September 11 will lead to chaos and intensified civil war.

AP reported that Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and withdrawal critic, asserted that there is “zero chance” the Taliban will abide by the commitments their leaders made in a February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, which included engaging in sustained peace negotiations and severing all forms of cooperation with and support for al-Qaida.

“It seems all but certain the Taliban will try to overrun the country and return it to a pre-9/11 state after we have withdrawn,” McCaul said. 

“They’ve already ramped up their attacks, taking new territory and bases since the (Biden) announcement was made. Without a military presence in country, the U.S. is giving them room to deepen their relationship with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, who may seek to launch external attacks on us and our allies from the country once again.”

Khalilzad argued that the Taliban have reason not to push for a military victory and instead pursue a negotiated political settlement that could give them international legitimacy and removal from certain American and United Nations sanctions. 

“They say they seek normalcy in terms of relations — acceptability, removal from sanctions, not to remain a pariah,” Khalilzad said.

Khalilzad said the U.S. military withdrawal is proceeding “so far so good,” and added: “We expect that to continue.” 

He said diplomatic efforts are underway to seek agreements with neighboring countries to position U.S. counterterrorism forces within strike distance of Afghanistan to be able to respond to future threats.

 

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Five military facilities handed over to Defense Ministry: CENTCOM

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(Last Updated On: May 18, 2021)

U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that about 115 C-17 military cargo loads of material have been flown out of Afghanistan and more than 5,000 pieces of equipment have been turned over to the Defense Logistics Agency for destruction.

According to a statement issued by CENTCOM, the U.S. has officially handed over five facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. 

“U.S. Central Command estimates that we have completed between 13-20% of the entire retrograde process,” the statement read.

The foreign troops withdrawal process started officially on May 1 and according to U.S. President Joe Biden it will be complete by September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the United States. 

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NSA says all leverage possible needed to get Taliban to talks tables

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(Last Updated On: May 18, 2021)

Afghan National Security Advisor (NSA) Hamdullah Mohib said Tuesday that all forms of leverage must be used to get the Taliban to actively engage in peace talks.

Mohib’s comments come amid an uptick in attacks by the Taliban in many province across the country following the three-day Eid ceasefire.

On Monday, Mohib discussed the Afghan peace process with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a phone conversation.

According to Mohib’s office, Wang assured Mohib of China’s full support for peace, stating: “China wants an independent, sovereign and unified Afghanistan.”

Wang noted that a political settlement is the only viable solution for ending the long-term war in Afghanistan.

Mohib’s office stated that the two sides identified terrorism as a common threat that both sides should fight.

“Wang Yi offered that China can increase its efforts, including regionally, in support of peace in Afghanistan,” the organization said.

Meanwhile, Mohib told Wang that “Afghanistan believes all levers of influence should be used to induce Taliban to engage earnestly in peace, including UN sanctions and other avenues where China’s unique capabilities can be helpful.”

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