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Multiple Government Agencies Targeted by Advanced Russian Hack

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  • Multiple government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and parts of the Pentagon have been hacked in a far-reaching attack widely believed to be led by Russia.
  • Experts have said the attack was highly advanced, and while the damage is unclear, more agencies are expected to be hit.
  • The hack was first discovered last week by the cybersecurity firm FireEye, which later found the attackers had entered government servers undetected this spring, giving them free rein for much of the past year.
  • The hackers first infiltrated the systems of the firm SolarWinds, which makes network-management software used by many government agencies and large companies. They later gained access to SolarWinds’ clients by infecting software updates the company sent its customers with malware.
  • While the motive is currently unknown, experts have said the recent hack is classic espionage.

Federal Agencies Hacked

At least half a dozen U.S. federal agencies — including several national security-related departments — have been the victims of a highly advanced suspected Russian hack. 

The attacks were first reported Sunday when Trump administration officials at the Treasury and Commerce departments confirmed that key networks had been breached and that the hackers had free range of their email systems.

On Monday, officials in the Homeland Security and State departments, the National Institutes of Health, and parts of the Pentagon also told reporters that they had been hit. 

Currently, the extent of the hacks and the damage they have done is unknown, but people close to the matter have said that the number of federal agencies that were attacked is expected to grow.

While the knowledge of these attacks comes at the close of a tumultuous election season, cybersecurity experts involved in the matter have said that the systems were infiltrated months ago. Top U.S. intelligence agencies did not detect the hacks until they were informed of the breaches by FireEye, a third-party cybersecurity company that had also been a target.

FireEye, which is contracted by intelligence agencies and other federal departments to find and patch security holes in networks that could be vulnerable to hackers, reported last week that hackers from a then-unidentified nation-state had entered their systems and stolen their anti-hacking tools.

The company soon found out that the attack expanded far beyond their own systems. In a statement released Sunday, FireEye described a global campaign of victims that included “government, consulting, technology, telecom and extractive entities in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.” 

SolarWinds

FireEye described the hack as incredibly sophisticated and “some of the best operational security” that they had ever seen in a cyberattack. It also noted that the hackers used at least one piece of malware that has never been previously detected.

The cybersecurity firm said that all of the involved organizations had been hit through a supply-chain attack, where cybercriminals infiltrate a target organization by hacking outside companies supplying products to the intended target that are then introduced into computer networks.

In this case, FireEye found that the supply chain attack started with an Austin-based company called SolarWinds that makes and supplies a widely-used network-management software called Orion.

The attackers hacked SolarWind and manipulated the software updates that the company sends out to their clients whenever there is an upgrade to Orion — much like the notifications your phone or computer sends when it has a software update.

When SolarWinds sent those infected updates to their clients, the hackers were able to gain access to these organizations when they downloaded the Orion update. Very notably, FireEye also said those software updates were delivered to customers between March and May, meaning that these hackers had free reign over these systems undetected for the better part of a year.

As for how many agencies or companies were impacted, right now, it is not entirely clear. In a federal securities filing Monday, SolarWinds reported that of its more than 300,000 clients, only 33,000 use Orion. Of those 33,000, fewer than 18,000 of its customers may have installed the corrupted software, the company said, though it also added it did not yet know how many systems were actually hacked.

However, other experts say the number is actually much, much lower.

“We think the number who were actually compromised were in the dozens,” Charles Carmakal, a senior vice president at FireEye told The New York Times. “But they were all the highest-value targets.”

In addition to the other government agencies that have said they were impacted, SolarWinds also contracts with all five branches of the military, the Executive Offices of the President, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Security Agency — which is the world’s top electronic spy agency.

SolarWinds also has other clients all around the world. According to reports, its services are used by almost all Fortune 500 companies, major defense contractors such as Boeing, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory where nuclear weapons are designed.

While it is unclear how many of those organizations used Orion, experts say that might not matter. As The Times reported, investigators have said that the hackers “used multiple entry points in addition to the compromised Orion software update, and that this may be only the beginning of what they find.”

In fact, in its Monday filing, SolarWinds even explicitly said that Microsoft’s Office 365 email may have also been “an attack vector” used by the attackers. In a blog post Sunday, Microsoft said that it has not found any product vulnerabilities in its own investigation of the hacks.

Suspected Russian Involvement

Neither SolarWinds nor FireEye specifically named the Russians, but numerous officials close to the matter have said that their investigation has pointed to a top Russian foreign intelligence agency known as the SVR, often called Cozy Bear or A.P.T. 29.

While the SVR is known as a traditional collector of intelligence, specializing in digital spying, it is not known for the kind of disinformation campaigns that we saw the Russians running in the 2016 election.

As a result, experts have said that this hack was not a campaign intended to undermine the election like last time, but rather to spy on the highest levels of the government.

“This is classic espionage,” Thomas Rid, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who specializes in cybersecurity issues told The Washington Post. “It’s done in a highly sophisticated way…. But this is a stealthy operation.”

“This so far appears to be classic digital spying of the sort that major nations, including the United States, engage in every day to gain geopolitical edges of various sorts,” The Post added.

“That’s a nine-month stretch that included — to name just a few of the important events that would have created computer files interesting to spies — the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, the historically fast development of vaccines using novel technology, and the U.S. presidential and congressional elections.”

As expected, Russian officials have denied any involvement. In a statement Sunday, the Russian Embassy in Washington called the reports “baseless” and said that Russia “does not conduct offensive operations in the cyber domain.”

Despite this claim, the U.S. intelligence community has extensively documented and verified numerous successful and attempted cyberattacks by Russia in the last several years. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Reuters)

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What You Need To Know About the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause

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  • The CDC and the FDA have issued a joint recommendation to pause distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports that six women experienced “extremely rare” blood clots after receiving the single-dose shot.
  • The vast majority of the 6.8 million Americans who were given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have reported minor to no side effects, and no direct link has been established between the vaccine and blood clots at this time. 
  • The two agencies are expected to release updated guidance in the coming days.
  • Several states and cities are now automatically giving the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to people who were scheduled to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. 

CDC and FDA Recommend J&J Vaccine Halt

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, released a statement Tuesday recommending a pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

So far, 6.8 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, most with zero or only mild side effects.

The updated guidance comes after six women, all between the ages of 18 to 48, experienced what both agencies described as “extremely rare” blood clots six to 13 days after being vaccinated. One of those women has died and another is in critical condition.

Neither the CDC nor the FDA has confirmed that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the cause of these blood clots; rather, they said this guidance comes “out of an abundance of caution.”

That’s also in line with Johnson & Johnson itself, which said it’s aware of the reports but added that “no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events.” As a precaution, Johnson & Johnson has also now delayed the rollout of its vaccine in Europe. 

What Happens From Here?

Principal Deputy Director of the CDC Anne Schuchat said further recommendations will come quickly.

FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock echoed that statement, saying, “We expect it to be a matter of days for this pause.”

Wednesday, a CDC committee will convene to discuss the cases and assess their potential significance.

When asked if the government was overreacting to just six cases out of nearly 7 million vaccinations (a criticism made by some online), Schuchat said the CDC pulled its recommendation specifically because the type of blood clots seen in these 6 women requires special treatment, so “it was of the utmost importance to us to get the word out.”

In the meantime, both agencies are urging Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients to contact their doctors if they experience any combination of severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath. 

What If I Had A J&J Appointment?

Both agencies, as well as other health officials, are still urging unvaccinated people to take the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines when available in their area.

The White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator has said that 28 million doses of those vaccines will be made available this week. Notably, that’s more than enough for the country to continue giving 3 million shots a day. 

If you had an appointment scheduled to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re likely not completely out of luck.

For example, while D.C. vaccination sites are canceling all Johnson & Johnson appointments between Tuesday and this Saturday, the health department there has said it’ll send out invitations on Wednesday to reschedule.

Similar situations were reported in Virginia and Maryland, though some vaccination sites in Maryland are still honoring existing appointments by automatically giving people Pfizer instead. That’s also a process that is now being conducted in places like New York State and Memphis.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (NBC News) (The Washington Post)

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Minnesota Protests Continue for a Second Night Over Police Killing of Daunte Wright

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  • Protests continued in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on Monday over the death of Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a police officer who allegedly thought she was using her Taser.
  • Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators violating the 7 p.m. curfew, as well as others who threw projectiles back at the officers. Several incidents of looting were reported, though law enforcement officials said they were minimal.
  • That same evening, police officials identified the officer involved in Wright’s death as Kimberly Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force, prompting many experts to flag numerous reasons an officer with her experience should have known not to confuse her weapon with a stun gun.
  • Wright tendered her resignation on Tuesday, as did Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon.

Second Night of Demonstrations 

Demonstrators clashed with police for the second night in a row Monday after an officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

Much like protests the day before, the events reportedly started out peaceful, with hundreds attending a vigil on the street where Wright was killed. Hundreds more gathered outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department.

The situation started to escalate after 7 p.m. when the curfew instituted across all four Twin City metro-area countries went into effect. According to reports, police began to warn people that they were in violation of the curfew, and shortly before 8 p.m., officers began firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. 

Some protesters reportedly retaliated by throwing water bottles, fireworks, and other projectiles. Later, police in riot gear pushed groups of demonstrators who had regrouped away from the police station.

Looters also broke into several businesses at a strip mall close by, including a Dollar Tree, where flames were reportedly later spotted, though law enforcement officials described the looting as limited.

During a press briefing just after midnight, officials said that 40 people had been arrested at the Brooklyn Center protest.

Officer Identified

Late Monday, state officials identified the officer who fatally shot Wright as Kimberly Potter, a 26-year veteran of the force. BCPD Chief Tim Gannon had previously said that the officer, who he refused to name, had intended to use her Taser, but accidentally used her gun.

Many social media users and experts questioned how someone with 26 years of experience could mix up a Taser and a gun, including one retired sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, who told The New York Times, “If you train enough, you should be able to tell.” 

The Times also noted that it is not common for officers to mix up their Tasers and guns, that most police forces — including BCPD — use a variety of protocols to prevent this from happening

Tasers are usually designed with specific features to distinguish them from guns, such as bright color-coating and different styles of grips. According to The Times, the BCPD manual cites three different pistol models as standard-issue, all three of which “weigh significantly more than a typical Taser.”

Those pistols also have a trigger safety that can be felt when touching them, while the Tasers do not. The outlet additionally noted that BCPD protocol requires officers to wear guns on their dominant sides and Tasers on the opposite to prevent exactly this kind of confusion.

Beyond that, Potter’s actions may have violated department policy even if she had used her Taser because the manual says it should not be used on people “whose position or activity may result in collateral injury,” including those “operating vehicles.” 

It also says that officers should make “reasonable efforts” to avoid using the stun gun on people in the “head, neck, chest and groin,” but Wright was shot in the chest. 

On Tuesday afternoon, it was reported that Potter and Chief Gannon have resigned from the force. The resignations come after Brooklyn Center leaders dismissed the city manager, a decision that could potentially give Mayor Mike Elliot the ability to fire the chief or officers in the department.

The resignations also come amid reports that Potter had been involved in another police-involved shooting in 2019, where she had been “admonished by investigators for allegedly attempting to conceal evidence after a police shooting that left a 21-year-old autistic man dead,” according to The Daily Beast.

Misinformation Spreads

As more information comes out surrounding the traffic stop that led to Wright’s death, several pieces of misinformation have also continued to spread on social media.

Most of the false information centers around the warrant for Wrights’ arrest that prompted police to attempt to detain him.

According to reports, court records show that a judge issued the warrant earlier this month after he missed a court appearance for two misdemeanor charges he was facing from last June for carrying a pistol without a permit and running from officers. 

Notably, Wright does have a number of past charges filed against him, including two for attempted sale of Marijuana and aggravated robbery. Despite claims by many social media users, those charges were for separate incidents, and the warrant was specifically for failing to appear in court for the June charge.

There has also been a viral video circulating Twitter and TikTok claiming court records show that the hearing notification was sent to the wrong address, seemingly in reference to a piece of mail that had failed to be delivered in his court records.

The mail, however, was actually for a different case and is not connected to the notification for the hearing he missed. While that video is incorrect and county officials maintain that they did send him notification, Wright’s public defender, Arthur Martinez, told reporters his client had never received the notice and that the court had not informed him either.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Minneapolis Star Tribune) (The Daily Beast)

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Protests Erupt in Minnesota After Police Shooting of Daunte Wright

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  • Protests erupted in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, Sunday evening after police shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop.
  • Police officials said an officer had intended to use a stun gun on Wright as he was attempting to re-enter his vehicle, and in body camera footage, the unidentified officer can be heard threatening to use her Taser before discharging her gun and exclaiming, “Holy sh*t, I shot him.”
  • Peaceful demonstrations started almost immediately but later devolved into violence and looting as some began clashing with police, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
  • The shooting and subsequent demonstrations added to heightened tensions in the area, which is just miles away from where former officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for murder over the death of George Floyd.

Daunte Wright Shooting

Protests and violence broke out Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis, after police shot and killed a Black man during s traffic stop just miles away from the courtroom where Derek Chauvin is facing murder charges for the death of George Floyd.

Local officials confirmed Monday morning that the man was 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who had previously been identified by his family. In a press release Sunday, the Brooklyn Center Police Department said that officers had pulled his car over for a traffic violation around 2 p.m. and discovered that he had a warrant out for his arrest. 

According to the statement, Wright tried to re-enter his car while police were trying to take him into custody. One of the officers fired their gun, hitting Daunte, whose car traveled several blocks before striking another vehicle.

Officers and medical personnel “attempted life saving measures,” but he was ultimately declared dead at the scene. A female passenger, who Daunte’s family identified as his girlfriend, also “sustained non-life threatening injuries” and was transported to the hospital. The people in the other vehicle were not hurt.

In a press conference Monday, Police Chief Tim Gannon said the officer who fatally shot Wright had meant to Taser him instead. He played body-camera footage that showed two officers approach the vehicle from each side. A third office approached later as the two tried to handcuff Wright, who can be seen struggling.

The third officer threatens to Taser Wright before firing her weapon, and immediately after, she can be heard saying “Holy shit, I shot him,” seemingly to realize she had fired her gun weapon instead of her Taser. Gannon said the unidentified officer has been placed on administrative leave.

Gannon claimed police had initially stopped Wright because his registration had expired, but that account appears to contradict the account from his family. On Sunday, his mother, Katie Wright, told reporters that her son was driving a car his family had given him two weeks ago and called her when he was pulled over.

“He said they pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror,” she said, adding that she had asked Daunte to give his phone to a police officer so she could give them the car insurance information.

Protests Break Out

According to local reports, hundreds of protestors gathered at the scene in initially peaceful demonstrations. Officers in riot gear responded to secure the area, people reportedly jumped on police cars, and some threw concrete blocks.

Police fired nonlethal rounds to try to disperse the crowd, and Wright’s mother called for protestors to calm down over a loudspeaker.

Protestors regrouped later that night, with hundreds reportedly marching to the Brooklyn Center Police Department headquarters. Again, the demonstrations were initially peaceful, but according to local reports, at around 9:30, police declared an unlawful assembly and gave people ten minutes to disperse.

About 25 minutes later, they started firing less-lethal rounds and flash-bang grenades into the crowds that remained. The standoff continued to escalate through the night, with police reportedly firing rubber bullets and chemical agents at protesters, some of whom threw rocks, bags of garbage, and water bottles back at them.

National Guard troops arrived just before midnight and looters began targeting nearby stores, including a Walmart and shopping mall.  According to reports, several businesses were completely destroyed, and around 20 total were targeted.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott ordered a curfew until 6 a.m., and the local school superintendent said the district would hold classes remotely “out of an abundance of caution.”

The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety also said Monday that more National Guard troops will be deployed to the area this week, where some were already stationed as part of a public safety plan put in place during the Chauvin trial.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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