Data Sheet: Saturday, August 12, 2017
Just before former President Barack Obama left office, he reportedly advised the inbound commander in chief that North Korea would be his administration’s biggest problem. The warning has proven prescient.
Earlier this week the Washington Post reported that the Hermit Kingdom has achieved, in the assessment of at least one U.S. intelligence agency as well as the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the ability to install a miniaturized nuclear warhead within its intercontinental ballistic missiles. The development prompted President Donald Trump to threaten “fire and fury” if the Kim regime refused to end its aggression. Though White House aides cautioned that Trump had spoken extemporaneously, he later doubled down, saying his threat wasn’t “tough enough.”
The President is continuing to come to grips with the realization that this foreign policy quagmire is “not so easy,” as he famously described a preliminary reversal of opinion on the matter to the Wall Street Journal in April, after his first ever meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Ignorant of the long history of the problem, Trump at least brings fresh eyes to it,” wrote The Atlantic’s Mark Bowden, taking the optimist’s point of view, if only momentarily, in an excellent feature that surveys the host of unsavory options at Washington’s disposal in dealing with the looming crisis. As the piece pessimistically concludes, “There are no good options for dealing with North Korea.”
America has long forestalled conflict with its reckless adversary, preferring economic sanctions, spy operations, and cyber sabotage to direct military intervention. Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assertion earlier this year that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience is over,” the present administration’s course has yet to look much different. Unless entering an era of a rhetorical game of chicken counts.
Amid the fomenting tension, a particular line in a centuries’ old text has haunted me. Niccolò Machiavelli, history’s least subtle statesman, once advised in The Prince, his manual for tyrants-to-be, “war is not to be avoided, but is only put off to the advantage of others.”
This grim edict takes as its context a situation in which war is inevitable. Specifically, Machiavelli cites the Romans in their conquest of foreign lands, where bloodshed was certain. His point is that the longer one delays, the more leverage one’s enemy may gain. There is something to be said for Machiavelli’s cynical doctrine; North Korea has greatly expanded its nuclear arsenal and weapons capabilities in recent years.
War is not inevitable when it comes to North Korea, one hopes. Diplomacy, or deterrence by other means, is obviously preferable.
Still I wonder about that quote often, and it makes me squeamish.
Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach me via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my about.me), PGP encrypted email (see public key on my Keybase.io), Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.
HBOh-no! Hackers broke into HBO’s computer network and stole episodes of Game of Thrones as well as other materials, including executive email archives, that they’ve since been leaking. The thieves have demanded a ransom in Bitcoin. Apparently, the Time Warner video unit has offered the hackers $250,000 as a “bounty payment,” usually recompense for security researchers who have reported cybersecurity flaws to a company. (Reuters, Fortune)
“You can check out any time you like, but…” A campaign of cyberespionage attacks targeting hotels guests in Europe and the Middle East is believed to have been conducted by Russian military intelligence agents, according to a report from researchers at FireEye. The hacker group sought to steal passwords from business travelers and government workers. Though the researchers have associated the attack with Russia’s GRU agency (also known as APT28 or “fancy bear”), Moscow has denied the claim. (Reuters, CyberScoop)
Coinbase becomes Unicornbase. Virtual currency broker Coinbase is now what Valleyites call a “unicorn”; that is, a startup worth $1 billion or more. The company raised $100 million at a $1.6 valuation including the capital raised this week. A recent boom in digital assets, like cryptocurrencies and tokens, no doubt helped Coinbase to get there. (Fortune)
Can’t we all just get along? A cybersecurity firm called DirectDefense tried to blow up the spot of Carbon Black, another computer security firm, by pointing out what it deemed to be a data-leaking flaw in its product. Turns out the feature is an option to upload files to VirusTotal, a malware database owned by Google, that is not turned on by default and which most security pros understand has privacy risks. The security community quickly debunked the FUD and criticized DirectDefense for its poor form. (Krebs on Security)
Salesforce’d out. Salesforce fired its director of offensive security and another senior security staffer after they revealed details about an internal hacking tool, colorfully dubbed MEATPISTOL, during a presentation at the hacker conference Defcon last month. Salesforce apparently signed off on the talk initially, and it reportedly planned to open source the tool eventually. The duo is now being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (ZDNet)
Fun fact: sailors are resorting to WWII radio tech in preparation for hacking on the high seas.
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Bitcoin recently split into two separate cryptocurrency networks: Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash. We ran a pair of op-eds from industry insiders as a point/counterpoint on the contentious division.
The first commentary, by Samson Mow, chief strategist at Bitcoin startup Blockstream, criticizes the bifurcation as poorly planned.
The creation of Bitcoin Cash was an orchestrated scheme, rushed to the point of engendering significant safety risks…. Bitcoin Cash’s birth has shown that markets can be manipulated with just a bit of computing power, a participating exchange, and a healthy dose of greed.
The second essay, by Jake Smith, a manager at Bitcoin.com, serves as a rebuttal.
Far from being a “rushed spinoff,” as Mow claims, the split was a long time coming…. And the markets seem to agree. The price of both tokens combined is now greater than the price of one Bitcoin before the split. Read both on Fortune.com.
Disney Sued Over Gaming Apps That Allegedly Compromise Children’s Privacy, by Jonathan Vanian
Bitcoin Just Surged to Yet Another All-Time High, by Lucinda Shen
Beyond Bitcoin: Overstock Lets Customers Pay With More Than 40 Alt Coins, by Jeff John Roberts
ONE MORE THING
Researchers made DNA into malware. A group of University of Washington researchers encoded malicious software into strands of DNA. A theoretical attack based on this gimmick would infect gene sequencing equipment with a virus that then spreads across a computer network. Despite the academics’ feat, this attack is still more sci-fi than reality. Still I love this sort of hacker whizbangery, don’t you? (Wired, IEEE Spectrum)