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Why So Many Top Hackers Hail from Russia

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Conventional wisdom says one reason so many hackers seem to hail from Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union is that these countries have traditionally placed a much greater emphasis than educational institutions in the West on teaching information technology in middle and high schools, and yet they lack a Silicon Valley-like pipeline to help talented IT experts channel their skills into high-paying jobs. This post explores the first part of that assumption by examining a breadth of open-source data.

The supply side of that conventional wisdom seems to be supported by an analysis of educational data from both the U.S. and Russia, which indicates there are several stark and important differences between how American students are taught and tested on IT subjects versus their counterparts in Eastern Europe.


Compared to the United States there are quite a few more high school students in Russia who choose to specialize in information technology subjects. One way to measure this is to look at the number of high school students in the two countries who opt to take the advanced placement exam for computer science.

According to an analysis (PDF) by The College Board, in the ten years between 2005 and 2016 a total of 270,000 high school students in the United States opted to take the national exam in computer science (the “Computer Science Advanced Placement” exam).

Compare that to the numbers from Russia: A 2014 study (PDF) on computer science (called “Informatics” in Russia) by the Perm State National Research University found that roughly 60,000 Russian students register each year to take their nation’s equivalent to the AP exam — known as the “Unified National Examination.” Extrapolating that annual 60,000 number over ten years suggests that more than twice as many people in Russia — 600,000 — have taken the computer science exam at the high school level over the past decade.

In “A National Talent Strategy,” an in-depth analysis from Microsoft Corp. on the outlook for information technology careers, the authors warn that despite its critical and growing importance computer science is taught in only a small minority of U.S. schools. The Microsoft study notes that although there currently are just over 42,000 high schools in the United States, only 2,100 of them were certified to teach the AP computer science course in 2011.


If more people in Russia than in America decide to take the computer science exam in secondary school, it may be because Russian students are required to study the subject beginning at a much younger age. Russia’s Federal Educational Standards (FES) mandate that informatics be compulsory in middle school, with any school free to choose to include it in their high school curriculum at a basic or advanced level.

“In elementary school, elements of Informatics are taught within the core subjects ‘Mathematics’ and ‘Technology,” the Perm University research paper notes. “Furthermore, each elementary school has the right to make [the] subject “Informatics” part of its curriculum.”

The core components of the FES informatics curriculum for Russian middle schools are the following:

1. Theoretical foundations
2. Principles of computer’s functioning
3. Information technologies
4. Network technologies
5. Algorithmization
6. Languages and methods of programming
7. Modeling
8. Informatics and Society


There also are stark differences in how computer science/informatics is taught in the two countries, as well as the level of mastery that exam-takers are expected to demonstrate in their respective exams.

Again, drawing from the Perm study on the objectives in Russia’s informatics exam, here’s a rundown of what that exam seeks to test:

Block 1: “Mathematical foundations of Informatics”,
Block 2: “Algorithmization and programming”, and
Block 3: “Information and computer technology.”

The testing materials consist of three parts.

Part 1 is a multiple-choice test with four given options, and it covers all the blocks. Relatively little time is set aside to complete this part.

Part 2 contains a set of tasks of basic, intermediate and advanced levels of complexity. These require brief answers such as a number or a sequence of characteristics.

Part 3 contains a set of tasks of an even higher level of complexity than advanced. These tasks usually involve writing a detailed answer in free form.

According to the Perm study, “in 2012, part 1 contained 13 tasks; Part 2, 15 tasks; and Part 3, 4 tasks. The examination covers the key topics from the Informatics school syllabus. The tasks with detailed answers are the most labor intensive. These include tasks on the analysis of algorithms, drawing up computer programs, among other types. The answers are checked by the experts of regional examination boards based on standard assessment criteria.”

Image: Perm State National Research University, Russia.

Image: Perm State National Research University, Russia.

In the U.S., the content of the AP computer science exam is spelled out in this College Board document (PDF).

US Test Content Areas:

Computational Thinking Practices (P)

P1: Connecting Computing
P2: Creating Computational Artifacts
P3: Abstracting
P4: Analyzing Problems and Artifacts
P5: Communicating
P6: Collaborating

The Concept Outline:

Big Idea 1: Creativity
Big idea 2: Abstraction
Big Idea 3: Data and Information
Big Idea 4: Algorithms
Big idea 5: Programming
Big idea 6: The Internet
Big idea 7: Global Impact


How do these two tests compare? Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute — an information security education and training organization — says topics 2, 3, 4 and 6 in the Russian informatics curriculum above are the “basics” on which cybersecurity skills can be built, and they are present beginning in middle school for all Russian students.

“Very few middle schools teach this in the United States,” Paller said. “We don’t teach these topics in general and we definitely don’t test them. The Russians do and they’ve been doing this for the past 30 years. Which country will produce the most skilled cybersecurity people?”

Paller said the Russian curriculum virtually ensures kids have far more hands-on experience with computer programming and problem solving. For example, in the American AP test no programming language is specified and the learning objectives are:

“How are programs developed to help people and organizations?”
“How are programs used for creative expression?”
“How do computer programs implement algorithms?”
“How does abstraction make the development of computer programs possible?”
“How do people develop and test computer programs?”
“Which mathematical and logical concepts are fundamental to programming?”

“Notice there is almost no need to learn to program — I think they have to write one program (in collaboration with other students),” Paller wrote in an email to KrebsOnSecurity. “It’s like they’re teaching kids to admire it without learning to do it. The main reason that cyber education fails is that much of the time the students come out of school with almost no usable skills.”


On the bright side, there are signs that computer science is becoming a more popular focus for U.S. high school students. According to the latest AP Test report (PDF) from the College Board, almost 58,000 Americans took the AP exam in computer science last year — up from 49,000 in 2015.

However, computer science still is far less popular than most other AP test subjects in the United States. More than a half million students opted for the English AP exam in 2016; 405,000 took English literature; almost 283,000 took AP government, while some 159,000 students went for an AP test called “Human Geography.”

A breakdown of subject specialization in the 2016 v. 2015 AP tests in the United States. Source: The College Board.

A breakdown of subject specialization in the 2016 v. 2015 AP tests in the United States. Source: The College Board.

This is not particularly good news given the dearth of qualified cybersecurity professionals available to employers. ISACA, a non-profit information security advocacy group, estimates there will be a global shortage of two million cyber security professionals by 2019. A report from Frost & Sullivan and (ISC)2 prognosticates there will be more than 1.5 million cybersecurity jobs unfilled by 2020.

The IT recruitment problem is especially acute for companies in the United States. Unable to find enough qualified cybersecurity professionals to hire here in the U.S., companies increasingly are counting on hiring foreigners who have the skills they’re seeking. However, the Trump administration in April ordered a full review of the country’s high-skilled immigration visa program, a step that many believe could produce new rules to clamp down on companies that hire foreigners instead of Americans.

Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players are urging policymakers to adopt a more forward-looking strategy to solving the skills gap crisis domestically. In its National Talent Strategy report (PDF), Microsoft said it spends 83 percent of its worldwide R&D budget in the United States.

“But companies across our industry cannot continue to focus R&D jobs in this country if we cannot fill them here,” reads the Microsoft report. “Unless the situation changes, there is a growing probability that unfilled jobs will migrate over time to countries that graduate larger numbers of individuals with the STEM backgrounds that the global economy so clearly needs.”

Microsoft is urging U.S. policymakers to adopt a nationwide program to strengthen K-12 STEM education by recruiting and training more teachers to teach it. The software giant also says states should be given more funding to broaden access to computer science in high school, and that computer science learning needs to start much earlier for U.S. students.

“In the short-term this represents an unrealized opportunity for American job growth,” Microsoft warned. “In the longer term this may spur the development of economic competition in a field that the United States pioneered.”

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U.S. now can ask travelers for Facebook, Twitter handles

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Customs officials now have a questionnaire that asks for social media account info going back five years

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26 days ago
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Right to speak freely about engineering is subject of 1st Amendment lawsuit

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Mats Jarlstrom is in a First Amendment legal battle over the right to discuss traffic-light times in Oregon.

An Oregon engineer who has been trying for years to convince state officials to elongate yellow traffic light times has a new cause: the First Amendment.

Mats Jarlstrom, who has an engineering degree from Sweden, has performed a variety of research and has concluded that yellow lights should last longer to allow for vehicles turning right. The state's response was not to consider his advice, but to fine him. Last summer, he was fined $500 (PDF) by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying because he was found to be practicing engineering without a license. While states require engineers to have licenses and pass exams, Oregon also requires a license to even discuss engineering publicly or even to say you're an engineer.

Jarlstrom's letters to public agencies and the media discussing the need for new thinking in traffic lights prompted the fine. After paying up, he sued (PDF), saying the government's behavior was a breach of the First Amendment right of speech. Jarlstrom wasn't the only person the Oregon engineering board fined for speaking out against government practices, either. According to his legal team, the Institute for Justice, as many as six other people have been caught in the Oregon board's web.

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26 days ago
This is troubling...
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Who Are the Shadow Brokers?

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In 2013, a mysterious group of hackers that calls itself the Shadow Brokers stole a few disks full of NSA secrets. Since last summer, they've been dumping these secrets on the Internet. They have publicly embarrassed the NSA and damaged its intelligence-gathering capabilities, while at the same time have put sophisticated cyberweapons in the hands of anyone who wants them. They have exposed major vulnerabilities in Cisco routers, Microsoft Windows, and Linux mail servers, forcing those companies and their customers to scramble. And they gave the authors of the WannaCry ransomware the exploit they needed to infect hundreds of thousands of computer worldwide this month.

After the WannaCry outbreak, the Shadow Brokers threatened to release more NSA secrets every month, giving cybercriminals and other governments worldwide even more exploits and hacking tools.

Who are these guys? And how did they steal this information? The short answer is: we don't know. But we can make some educated guesses based on the material they've published.

The Shadow Brokers suddenly appeared last August, when they published a series of hacking tools and computer exploits­ -- vulnerabilities in common software -- ­from the NSA. The material was from autumn 2013, and seems to have been collected from an external NSA staging server, a machine that is owned, leased, or otherwise controlled by the US, but with no connection to the agency. NSA hackers find obscure corners of the Internet to hide the tools they need as they go about their work, and it seems the Shadow Brokers successfully hacked one of those caches.

In total, the group has published four sets of NSA material: a set of exploits and hacking tools against routers, the devices that direct data throughout computer networks; a similar collection against mail servers; another collection against Microsoft Windows; and a working directory of an NSA analyst breaking into the SWIFT banking network. Looking at the time stamps on the files and other material, they all come from around 2013. The Windows attack tools, published last month, might be a year or so older, based on which versions of Windows the tools support.

The releases are so different that they're almost certainly from multiple sources at the NSA. The SWIFT files seem to come from an internal NSA computer, albeit one connected to the Internet. The Microsoft files seem different, too; they don't have the same identifying information that the router and mail server files do. The Shadow Brokers have released all the material unredacted, without the care journalists took with the Snowden documents or even the care WikiLeaks has taken with the CIA secrets it's publishing. They also posted anonymous messages in bad English but with American cultural references.

Given all of this, I don't think the agent responsible is a whistleblower. While possible, it seems like a whistleblower wouldn't sit on attack tools for three years before publishing. They would act more like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, collecting for a time and then publishing immediately­ -- and publishing documents that discuss what the US is doing to whom. That's not what we're seeing here; it's simply a bunch of exploit code, which doesn't have the political or ethical implications that a whistleblower would want to highlight. The SWIFT documents are records of an NSA operation, and the other posted files demonstrate that the NSA is hoarding vulnerabilities for attack rather than helping fix them and improve all of our security.

I also don't think that it's random hackers who stumbled on these tools and are just trying to harm the NSA or the US. Again, the three-year wait makes no sense. These documents and tools are cyber-Kryptonite; anyone who is secretly hoarding them is in danger from half the intelligence agencies in the world. Additionally, the publication schedule doesn't make sense for the leakers to be cybercriminals. Criminals would use the hacking tools for themselves, incorporating the exploits into worms and viruses, and generally profiting from the theft.

That leaves a nation state. Whoever got this information years before and is leaking it now has to be both capable of hacking the NSA and willing to publish it all. Countries like Israel and France are capable, but would never publish, because they wouldn't want to incur the wrath of the US. Country like North Korea or Iran probably aren't capable. (Additionally, North Korea is suspected of being behind WannaCry, which was written after the Shadow Brokers released that vulnerability to the public.) As I've written previously, the obvious list of countries who fit my two criteria is small: Russia, China, and­ -- I'm out of ideas. And China is currently trying to make nice with the US.

It was generally believed last August, when the first documents were released and before it became politically controversial to say so, that the Russians were behind the leak, and that it was a warning message to President Barack Obama not to retaliate for the Democratic National Committee hacks. Edward Snowden guessed Russia, too. But the problem with the Russia theory is, why? These leaked tools are much more valuable if kept secret. Russia could use the knowledge to detect NSA hacking in its own country and to attack other countries. By publishing the tools, the Shadow Brokers are signaling that they don't care if the US knows the tools were stolen.

Sure, there's a chance the attackers knew that the US knew that the attackers knew -- ­and round and round we go. But the "we don't give a damn" nature of the releases points to an attacker who isn't thinking strategically: a lone hacker or hacking group, which clashes with the nation-state theory.

This is all speculation on my part, based on discussion with others who don't have access to the classified forensic and intelligence analysis. Inside the NSA, they have a lot more information. Many of the files published include operational notes and identifying information. NSA researchers know exactly which servers were compromised, and through that know what other information the attackers would have access to. As with the Snowden documents, though, they only know what the attackers could have taken and not what they did take. But they did alert Microsoft about the Windows vulnerability the Shadow Brokers released months in advance. Did they have eavesdropping capability inside whoever stole the files, as they claimed to when the Russians attacked the State Department? We have no idea.

So, how did the Shadow Brokers do it? Did someone inside the NSA accidentally mount the wrong server on some external network? That's possible, but seems very unlikely for the organization to make that kind of rookie mistake. Did someone hack the NSA itself? Could there be a mole inside the NSA?

If it is a mole, my guess is that the person was arrested before the Shadow Brokers released anything. No country would burn a mole working for it by publishing what that person delivered while he or she was still in danger. Intelligence agencies know that if they betray a source this severely, they'll never get another one.

That points to two possibilities. The first is that the files came from Hal Martin. He's the NSA contractor who was arrested in August for hoarding agency secrets in his house for two years. He can't be the publisher, because the Shadow Brokers are in business even though he is in prison. But maybe the leaker got the documents from his stash, either because Martin gave the documents to them or because he himself was hacked. The dates line up, so it's theoretically possible. There's nothing in the public indictment against Martin that speaks to his selling secrets to a foreign power, but that's just the sort of thing that would be left out. It's not needed for a conviction.

If the source of the documents is Hal Martin, then we can speculate that a random hacker did in fact stumble on it -- ­no need for nation-state cyberattack skills.

The other option is a mysterious second NSA leaker of cyberattack tools. Could this be the person who stole the NSA documents and passed them on to someone else? The only time I have ever heard about this was from a Washington Post story about Martin:

There was a second, previously undisclosed breach of cybertools, discovered in the summer of 2015, which was also carried out by a TAO employee [a worker in the Office of Tailored Access Operations], one official said. That individual also has been arrested, but his case has not been made public. The individual is not thought to have shared the material with another country, the official said.

Of course, "not thought to have" is not the same as not having done so.

It is interesting that there have been no public arrests of anyone in connection with these hacks. If the NSA knows where the files came from, it knows who had access to them -- ­and it's long since questioned everyone involved and should know if someone deliberately or accidentally lost control of them. I know that many people, both inside the government and out, think there is some sort of domestic involvement; things may be more complicated than I realize.

It's also not over. Last week, the Shadow Brokers were back, with a rambling and taunting message announcing a "Data Dump of the Month" service. They're offering to sell unreleased NSA attack tools­ -- something they also tried last August­ -- with the threat to publish them if no one pays. The group has made good on their previous boasts: In the coming months, we might see new exploits against web browsers, networking equipment, smartphones, and operating systems -- Windows in particular. Even scarier, they're threatening to release raw NSA intercepts: data from the SWIFT network and banks, and "compromised data from Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean nukes and missile programs."

Whoever the Shadow Brokers are, however they stole these disks full of NSA secrets, and for whatever reason they're releasing them, it's going to be a long summer inside of Fort Meade­ -- as it will be for the rest of us.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic, and is an update of this essay from Lawfare.

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29 days ago
Out of the two options, I suspect it is the former. Occam's razor?
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Extending the Airplane Laptop Ban

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The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots -- all without making us any safer.

In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom required that passengers from 10 Muslim countries give up their laptop computers and larger tablets, and put them in checked baggage. The new measure was based on reports that terrorists would try to smuggle bombs onto planes concealed in these larger electronic devices.

The security measure made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn't keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that's in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it's also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they're functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.

And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn't take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn't remove the threat.

Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren't domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn't perfect security -- the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all -- but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.

I don't have access to classified intelligence, and I can't comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn't be the first time we've had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.

This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.

Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage -- something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what's on their hard drives.

Safety is another concern. We're already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.

Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won't accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it's rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.

I don't know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.

As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.

A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It's a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.

The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it's like to go through "normal" security screening. And since frequent fliers -- likely to be more wealthy -- no longer see the problem, they don't have any incentive to fix it.

Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can't work on their flights to and from D.C.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: US officials are backing down.

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37 days ago
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36 days ago
This should stay down
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Two defenses of research on useless knowledge

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Enlarge / Science! (credit: BRICK 101)

In an era of intense, globalized economic competition and massive government debt, can we afford fundamental scientific research? Lately, the answer seems to be "not really." Companies that once supported R&D have cut back dramatically, and the US government hasn't kept pace with inflation when it comes to funding most research. In the last 50 years, the US' spending on research has gone from over two percent of the GDP to 0.8 percent. And there's intense pressure to make sure the research that's still funded has practical applications, from the National Institute of Health's translational research programs to Lamar Smith's attempt to ensure that National Science Foundation only funds research that boosts "national health, prosperity, or welfare."

That's the atmosphere that led Robbert Dijkgraaf of the Institute for Advanced Study to write a defense of fundamental research. As the resulting text was being released, the public was reeling over the question of whether there were such things as "alternative facts." Since then, the Trump administration proposed a budget that would radically cut funding for almost every area of scientific research. You can't say Dijkgraaf's decision wasn't timely.

Dijkgraaf's argument takes the form of a small book, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. In it are two essays, one from Dijkgraaf himself titled The World of Tomorrow and the original Usefulness of Useless Knowledge penned in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, who helped found the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Both offer defenses of what they loosely call "useless knowledge," or scientific effort without immediate application.

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