Britain blocks extradition of hacker who broke into Pentagon computers

Britain announced that it would not extradite Gary McKinnon, a confessed computer hacker wanted by the U.S. for hacking into Pentagon computers and other sensitive networks
LONDON -– In a case that has dogged Anglo-American relations for a decade, Britain announced Tuesday that it would not send a confessed computer hacker to the United States to face charges in connection with a spectacular break-in of the Pentagon's computer system and other sensitive networks around the time of the 9/11 attacks.

British Home Secretary Theresa May told lawmakers that Gary McKinnon, 46, would not be extradited to the U.S. because of his mental health problems, which include suicidal thoughts and Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. Shipping him out of the country for prosecution would breach McKinnon's human rights, even though he stands accused of "serious crimes," May said.

The politically fraught decision by Washington's closest ally is likely to rouse the ire of U.S. officials, who have sought McKinnon's extradition for years. They say that McKinnon's repeated hacking of U.S. military computers, which he admits, caused serious damage and sparked a network crash soon after the 9/11 attacks.

McKinnon maintains that he broke into the computers to look for secret government evidence about UFOs and extraterrestrial life. His case has become something of a cause celebre in Britain, where many see him as a misguided, psychologically disturbed but ultimately harmless computer nerd up against the might of a prosecution-happy American judicial system.

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Google, Gmail blocked as Iran pushes 'national Internet'

TEHRAN -- Iran has shut off access to Google and Gmail inside the country, a step eyed by Web activists with concern as the nation's leaders seek to wall off a corner of cyberspace separate from the global Internet.

As of Monday, Iranians received an announcement via text message that quoted Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, secretary of an official group that scours the Web for banned content.

"Due to the repeated demands of the people, Google and Gmail will be filtered nationwide," the message said. "They will remain filtered until further notice."

The "demands" appear to be tied to an online video mocking the prophet Muhammad, which Google has restricted in some countries but declined to completely scrub from YouTube.

Google has been targeted in Iran before: The search engine has been denounced by a top police official as an "espionage tool" and excoriated by Iranian officials for not labeling the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula as the "Persian Gulf" on Google Maps. Internet access on the whole has been disrupted in Iran in the past, often during times of unrest before or after elections.

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Sweden tops, Yemen last in getting most out of Internet, study says

Worldwide, Sweden gets the most out of using the Internet, according to a new study from a foundation that seeks to expand access to the Web

Worldwide, Sweden gets the most out of using the Internet, according to a new study from a foundation that seeks to expand access to the Web.

That puts the Northern European nation a world away from most countries, where the Internet is still a luxury. Only one in three people around the globe use the Web, the foundation said, and the share of Internet users is even slimmer in Africa.

The rankings are an ambitious attempt by the World Wide Web Foundation, a nonprofit group with offices in the U.S., Switzerland and South Africa, to sum up how different countries use the Internet, factoring in access, infrastructure and what information is available to users. Its "Web Index" attempts to measure not just whether people can use the Internet, but what they get from it.

"We want to take this issue about whether or not people are a part of the information society and help increase awareness that it's as important as access to water and vaccinations –- it's not a secondary issue," Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee said in the newly released report.

Money is the main reason the World Wide Web isn't really worldwide, the group said. Broadband connections to the Internet cost almost half the average monthly income across dozens of countries surveyed. In Africa, getting access to the Web cost more than the average monthly income, the group found, compared with less than 5% of the average monthly income in the Americas and just 1.7% in Europe.

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Iranians shut out of 'World of Warcraft'; U.S. rules cited


TEHRAN -- Iranians have scaled back as their economy is squeezed by Western sanctions, scrimping on meat and cutting down on small luxuries.

But now those pressures have intruded on a world that once seemed safe from geopolitical wrangling:  an online fantasy realm of goblins, dragons and warlocks enjoyed by more than 9 million paying subscribers around the world.

Sanctions by the United States, it seems, have hit "World of Warcraft."

Iranian gamers took to the "World of Warcraft" message board this week, complaining that they had been shut out of the online game. “Well, as if life of an Iranian couldn't get worse, the became completely inaccessible as of today,” one "World of Warcraft" fan wrote in frustration.

Another lamented, “Well we had a good run, Goodbye cruel world ...”

Some speculated that the Iranian government must have shut them down, concerned that the game glorified mythology and violence. But a gaming company employee replied this week that U.S. sanctions were to blame for Iranians getting booted after paying for the game.

Blizzard Entertainment, the U.S. company behind the popular game, “tightened up its procedures to ensure compliance with these laws, and players connecting from the affected nations are restricted from access,” one of its employees explained in an online message to gamers.

The same rules stopped Blizzard from offering refunds, the employee wrote. “We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and will happily lift these restrictions as soon as U.S. law allows.”

The U.S. Treasury Department said it hadn't asked Blizzard to block the game and referred questions about the decision to the company. It said that Blizzard could seek government permission to get Iranians back into online warfare.

“Clearly the focus of our sanctions is not on video games,” U.S. Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said. “We would consider a license request from Blizzard Entertainment should they choose to apply for one.”

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Ecuador expected to decide fate of WikiLeaks' Assange


Ecuador is slated to announce Thursday morning whether Julian Assange, the founder of the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website, will be granted asylum after holing up in its embassy.

The decision is expected to be a major turn in the winding legal and political saga of Assange, a provocative figure whose website has infuriated governments by airing official secrets and has won fervent fans among Internet activists who have rallied behind his cause.

Assange first turned up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in June, shortly after the British Supreme Court ruled he could be extradited to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault. The complaints were lodged by two women who claimed Assange had abused them during a Swedish lecture tour.

Assange denies the allegations and has claimed that he is being politically persecuted so he can be sent to the United States, which was angered by the release of secret Pentagon documents and a vast trove of State Department cables. In his bid for asylum, Assange argued that he could face the death penalty for "political crimes" in the U.S., where he claims he has been secretly indicted.

The idea of heading to Ecuador was not new: An Ecuadorean deputy foreign minister had flirted with the idea of giving Assange residency in Ecuador two years ago to ensure he could continue his work.  At the time, President Rafael Correa said he had not approved the offer.

Assange later interviewed President Correa for a television show while under house arrest in Britain. Their rapport was evident during the interview. The leftist president denounced the U.S. and praised WikiLeaks for exposing its actions; Assange chuckled at his jokes.

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Stalinist tactics on Russian dissent could stumble in Internet era

Russia punk rock trio

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny faces charges of embezzlement, accusations of inciting violence in the Caucasus and the threat of having his law license revoked. A female punk rock trio awaits sentencing for appealing to the Virgin Mary to throw President Vladimir Putin out of office. And Putin's allies in parliament recently passed laws punishing demonstrators and branding civil rights groups with overseas supporters "foreign agents."

GlobalFocusThe crackdown on dissent in recent weeks has Kremlin watchers making comparisons with Josef Stalin's paranoia-driven repressions in the early Soviet era for their power to scare opponents into silent submission.

But the politics of fear may not work so reliably, Russia analysts say, in the age of the Internet and toppled authoritarian regimes across the Middle East. And, the experts say, Putin and his hierarchy may be underestimating the potential for global cultural stars and social media to incite a backlash against their efforts to stifle dissent.

The three feminist rockers fell afoul of Putin's regime when they belted out a "punk prayer" at a Moscow cathedral in February that ended with a heavenly appeal to "throw out Putin." They were charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, prosecuted in what many called a show trial this week and are awaiting an Aug. 17 verdict widely expected to send them to prison for at least three years.

Superstar Madonna, in Russia for a concert tour, showed her solidarity with the jailed rockers by sporting their signature black ski mask at a performance Tuesday and scrawling the group's name across her bare back. Sting, Yoko Ono, Pete Townsend of the Who and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant also have appealed for the trio's release in a rising outcry against free-speech infringements.

The opposition in Russia may look weak now, but "there's a potential spark out there," said Paul Gregory, a Russian scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"Putin clearly watched with some trepidation as the 'Arab Spring' unfolded," Gregory said of the swift spread of uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria last year. Just imagine, he said, if something were to happen to one of the twentysomething rockers while in prison, like a suspicious death or suicide.

"I don't want to suggest something like this, but it's the kind of thing that could bring millions of people out on the streets," he said. "The people who can help, believe it or not, are those in the artistic community, like Madonna. The Kremlin is scared to death of her. These artists can't be written off as foreign agents, and they speak to millions and millions of Russians."

Putin's strategy throughout his 12 years in high office has been to cast challenges to his authority as bankrolled by foreign enemies, and it has been successful in portraying him as a strong leader and defender of Russian sovereignty in the provinces, said Andrew Weiss, director of the Rand Center for Russia and Eurasia and a former National Security Council official during the Clinton administration.

But blaming foreigners for the 100,000-strong protest in Moscow after December's tainted parliamentary elections doesn't play as well with the educated, technology-savvy populations of Russia's biggest cities, Weiss said.

The unprecedented eruption of anti-Putin protesters shocked the Kremlin and spurred its Security Council chief, former KGB official Nikolai Patrushev, to call for "reasonable regulation" of the Internet and social media to prevent their use by "criminals and terrorist groups."

"There may be people in the Russian establishment who want to block Facebook and Twitter, but I doubt they could pull it off," Weiss said. He sees a leadership that is out of touch with the wired generation of Russians with no memory of the Soviet era, when the communist government could control movement and access to information.

Laws that criminalize public assembly and the defamation of officials are acceptable to Russian peasants and workers in the provincial rust belt cities, he said. But it remains to be seen how long tactics that were refined decades ago will succeed in stifling dissent, Weiss said.

Navalny, the 36-year-old lawyer whose disjointed political alliance failed to get much traction against Putin's United Russia last year, has reacted to the criminal charges and moves to undermine his credibility with regular postings on the blog of his nonprofit Endowment for Fighting Corruption. The posts have included reports of his discovery this week of listening devices embedded throughout his Moscow apartment.

"They're using a bazooka to shoot at a mouse," Weiss said of the Kremlin's excessive moves against the opposition. "The big question is how effective these steps will be in tamping down what Putin and his top officials should be worried about."

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Photo: Russian jail matrons escort punk group members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, top, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina into a Moscow court where their trial concluded Wednesday. Credit: Sergei Chirikov / European Pressphoto Agency

General warns of dramatic increase in cyber-attacks on U.S. firms

Cyber forum
ASPEN, Colo.  -- Computer  intrusions by hackers, criminals and nations against U.S. infrastructure increased seventeenfold from 2009 to 2011, the nation’s chief cyber defender says, and it’s only a matter of time before such an attack causes physical damage.

Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads  the National Security Agency and the U.S. Cyber Command, revealed the statistics in a rare public interview Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum, a gathering of national security officials. He called for passage of legislation being debated by the Senate that would set up a voluntary system for companies to shore up their computer defenses.

The NSA eavesdrops on communications around the world, and it also monitors cyber-attacks. U.S. Cyber Command is responsible for offensive cyber operations.

Alexander did not say how many attacks happen each year against critical infrastructure, such as electrical, water, chemical and nuclear plants. Such intrusions are typically designed  to probe defenses and lay the groundwork for a destructive attack.  Many plants and factories are run by networked industrial control systems, so an attacker who seizes control of such a system could wreak havoc.

Echoing remarks he has made before, Alexander said the U.S. lacks sufficient defenses against cyber-attacks. On a scale of 1 to 10, he said, American preparedness for a large-scale cyber-attack is “around a 3.”

He said he was particularly worried about attacks that could shut down parts of the electrical grid or compromise public water systems.

“Destructive cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure are coming,” Alexander said.

Alexander said the military had yet to work out rules of engagement for responding to cyber-attacks, and he pointed out that neither of his agencies have the authority to defend against a cyber-attack on a private company, even if that company owns crucial infrastructure.  The pending bill would fix that, he said.

Some business groups oppose the bill as intrusive, and some civil liberties groups say it compromises privacy.

Alexander pointedly refused to comment on Stuxnet, a cyber-attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities that has been reported to have been the work of the U.S. and Israeli intelligence.  He also pushed back against the notion that the uptick in attacks on the U.S. is related to Stuxnet, which was first discovered in June 2010.

Alexander repeated his view that computer-based espionage against the industrialized world amounted to “the biggest transfer of wealth in history” because “adversaries have gone into our companies and taken intellectual property.”

He cited one estimate by the security firm McAfee that the losses from such spying add up to a trillion dollars. But, he said, "we don’t know. And which is more alarming:  that it’s really large, or we don’t even know how large it is? … What other countries are doing are stealing the next generation of [our] capabilities.”

Alexander didn’t name the countries, but China and Russia have  been cited by government officials as the biggest culprits, a charge they deny.


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Photo: NBC correspondent Pete Williams, left, interviews Gen. Keith Alexander  on  on cyber-security. Credit: Aspen Daily News 

Mexico signs anti-piracy treaty, setting up battle with activists

Mexico piracy acta file photo

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico this week quietly signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, a controversial multinational treaty that sponsors say protects intellectual property but opponents call an assault on privacy and freedom of expression.

Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico signed the agreement Wednesday on behalf of the Mexican government in Japan.  The signing immediately set off condemnation among Internet activists in Mexico, who called the government's move a strategic ruse in an election year.

Mexico's Senate must ratify the treaty, but the chamber rejected ACTA in 2010 (link in Spanish).

By signing it while Congress is not in session -- and just days after the presidential election -- the administration of President Felipe Calderon is in effect forcing the issue to the front of the agenda once the new Congress convenes in September and before Calderon's term expires. The president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, assumes office for a six-year term in December. Peña Nieto has so far not indicated a position on the treaty.

ACTA has been negotiated and debated by world governments since it first emerged in 2008. The agreement would help improve international efforts to prosecute content and intellectual-property piracy, including digital and Internet platforms, but also covering trademarks, brands and pirated pharmaceuticals.

Opponents say governments could abuse ACTA and target private users  with criminal charges for downloading copyrighted material, for example, or force Internet service providers to monitor the  online activity of users and turn data over to authorities (link in Spanish).

The United States is a key signatory as of October 2011 with Australia, Canada, Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan. Last week, the European Parliament rejected ACTA in a crucial vote, a setback for the treaty. ACTA is "too vague, open to misinterpretation, and could therefore jeopardize citizens' liberties," the parliament said in a statement.

Mexico's signing, although contingent on ratification by the new Senate, revives momentum for ACTA supporters.

Rodrigo Roque Diaz, director of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, or IMPI, said in an interview that the government would ask Congress to develop legislation in the fall that would "jointly" protect Internet users concerned about privacy.

"The idea is not to criminalize the independent, private user of the Internet;  the idea is to sanction those who are violating author rights on a commercial scale," Roque Diaz told The Times.

Piracy in Mexico, which is commonly associated with outdoor markets where illegally produced DVDs and CDs are sold, "generates great economic and tax losses" estimated at 2.7 million pesos (about $200,000) an hour, he said. 

Activists in Mexico promised this week to vigorously oppose ratification of ACTA once the Senate convenes. They've started a Twitter campaign to request that each senator-elect stake out a position now  (link in Spanish). 

So far, leftist legislators are assumed to oppose ACTA, while the ruling conservative party members are assumed to support it. Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party will hold the most seats in the new Senate, but the party's position on ACTA is yet unclear.

Antonio Martinez, a free-speech advocate and one of the forefront voices against the treaty  during the Senate's working-group debates on the issue in 2009 and 2010, said the government's signing of ACTA is "trickery."

"It's a very bad signal from the government to the outgoing Senate and to civil society;  it's disdainful of all the work done in the legislature," Martinez said Friday. ACTA "is dangerous for what it doesn't say. The IMPI is wrong, and it's almost as though they haven't even read the treaty," he said.


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Photo: A vendor shows pirated DVDs on a sidewalk in central Mexico City in 2006. Credit: Sarah Meghan Lee / For The Times

Web freedom groups trumpet EU defeat of anti-piracy agreement


In a victory trumpeted by Internet freedom groups, the European Parliament soundly rejected an international agreement to combat piracy Wednesday after protests against the pact swept Europe. The vote reportedly came down to just 39 ballots in favor, 478 against and 165 abstentions.

“This is a remarkable development that was virtually unthinkable even a year ago,” University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist wrote on his blog, cheering the decision.

Backers of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, including the United States, Canada and Japan, said it would curb counterfeiting and illegal downloads and streaming of movies and music, creating a common international standard for policing piracy. Many countries have already signed ACTA. European associations tied to publishing, television and other creative industries hailed joining them as a way to protect their members' work.

But a range of organizations — from Internet freedom groups to aid agencies — argued that ACTA would have nasty side effects. Free speech groups complained that the pact could infringe on privacy and push Internet providers to police what people share online with few safeguards for their rights, drawing little distinction between people who use pirated files for their own use and those who profited from them.

“Power over what we see and do online is effectively given away to businesses — potentially outside the rule of law,” the Open Rights Group based in London argued. It added, “We are concerned about how easily this power over information online could be used mistakenly or inappropriately.”

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange defies British police

LONDON -- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has defied a British police request to report to a London police station to begin extradition proceedings to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on sexual assault allegations.

Assange, who has won wide public support for revealing diplomatic and international business secrets on the WikiLeaks website, took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy this month, seeking political asylum.

Susan Benn, a member of the Julian Assange Defense Fund, read a statement outside the embassy Friday saying that Assange "has been advised that he should decline to comply with the police request."

It was no sign of disrespect, she insisted, but "under both international and domestic U.K. law, asylum assessments take priority over extradition claims."

"The issues faced by Mr. Assange are serious," she went on.  At stake was "the life and liberty" of Assange and those associated with WikiLeaks.

Before his move to the embassy, Assange, who denies wrongdoing, had been living under house arrest in Britain since December 2010, most of it spent in the country mansion of one of his supporters.

He has lost several appeals against his extradition; he reportedly fears that he could later be extradited to the United States, where he could face charges of espionage.

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