Nine to Noon: 4 June 2009

June 17, 2009 – 5:03 pm

Listen to my 4 June 2009 appearance on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon show. I spoke about national security and social unrest on the Internets.


The murdered lawyer
National Security


Guate is an unstable country. 36 years of civil war ended in 1996, but the unrest continues. This year has seen something new. My explanation here draws heavily on an article that blogger Xeni Jardin wrote for GOOD magazine, and on her posts for the BoingBoing blog.


May 10 this year, lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was assassinated. Ordinarily this would be tragic for the family but another of the 6,000 annual murders in Guatemala. But the lawyer left a videotape saying: “If you are watching this message”, Rosenberg says on the video, “it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom, with help from Gustavo Alejos” (Álvaro Colom’s private secretary). He claimed he would be targeted because he planned to come forward with evidence that Colom’s government engaged in drug money laundering and misuse of public funds through a partly state-owned bank.

The video was handed out on DVDs at his funeral, it was quickly posted to YouTube, went viral, and started something the government is still finding hard to deal with. Rosenberg’s accusation hasn’t been proven or disproven, but it has made life very difficult.


Soon, it was the focal point of chatter among mostly young Guatemalans on social sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Hi5. Users followed those conversations by searching for the hashtag #escandalogt—shorthand for “Guatemalan Scandal.” Remixes of the video soon appeared online, along with subtitled versions and amateur op-ed responses to the claims therein.


Those social networks then helped spread the word of protests, with between 30,000 and 50,000 people turning up. (For comparison, I was at the Auckland Harbour Bridge bicycle crossing and that was 1/10th the side yet buggered up traffic in the city for a day). Many protest participants wore white, to symbolize an end to violence, and they became known as the “tsunami blanco.” Web-savvy news organizations broadcast live video of the protests online, right there in the streets, using laptops, cellular data cards, and free streaming video services like Ustream.

What’s the reaction? One Twitter user was arrested, jailed, and faces up to 10 years in prison for having posted a single 96-character tweet about the bank at the center of the corruption scandal. He said Guatemalans should withdraw their money en masse and create a run on the bank.


The “tuiteros” exhilarated by their own newfound, potent public voice fear the darker aspect of that history will repeat. “The problem is that sooner or later, they’re going to persecute us,” tweeted one. “Just like they did the so-called ‘communists’ of the ’60s and ’70s.”

Social media didn’t destabilise Guatemala. It has been a mess for a long time. The interesting question for me is whether social media like Twitter and Facebook can bring citizens together, to create a united Guatemala around a common belief in the future.

National Security


Black hat hackers under the pay of foreign countries attack the US military, government, and utility company web sites every hour of every day. I’m not making this up: there was a recent story about Chinese crackers who sent messages in support of the Dalai Lama to fool sympathisers into clicking on a link that would infect their computer with malware.

Infected computers download a Trojan known as ‘Ghost Rat’ that allows attackers to gain complete, real-time control. Such a computer can be controlled or inspected by its hackers, and even has the ability to turn on the camera and audio-recording functions of an infected computer that has such capabilities, enabling monitors to see and hear what goes on in a room.

The network of infected machines was called “GhostNet” by the researchers, and it spanned over a dozen countries and included embassies and the Prime Minister of Laos. 30% of the infected computers were in government offices. Today over 130 countries are developing this kind of cyberwarfare capability.


Regardless of how scary that is for us, it’s very scary for the US government and that’s why some are getting antsy about the growing use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites. The more an attacker knows about you, the easier it is for them to fool you into opening an attachment or visiting a hostile web site.

One of the US Armed Services just did a study that showed 60% of the service members involved in the study have posted enough information on MySpace to make themselves vulnerable to adversary targeting. This included officers and enlisted troops from Intelligence and Security postings as well as other sensitive positions posting such things as units they have deployed with, new duty stations, personal medical data, job duties, information about training, and pictures of themselves at deployed locations.


Another set of researchers raise the possibility of a State Department Twitterer’s computer being taken over as a result of one of these attacks. Then the attacker posts a Tweet that includes a link to the infecting malware. Boom, all the government employees who read and trust that State employee are now infected.


Social media won’t go away. But there may be limits of access for those in combat, and a lot of education necessary for those who aren’t about just how easy it is to be conned as a result of what you post on the Internet. A lesson we all should learn.

  1. One Response to “Nine to Noon: 4 June 2009”

  2. Adding to your GhostNet commentary: An NGO worker on MetaFilter posted a first-person anecdote of being a subject of a GhostNet attack. It’s chilling, but also fascinating in how detailed the Chinese are in their efforts to acquire compromising information.

    By ardgedee on Jun 18, 2009

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