Cyber-Security Politics Technology

A Fundamental Question: what did the Russian hack look like?

Senator Al Franken was just on This Week with Martha Radditz, talking about the Russian hack into our elections and the Trump Campaign’s strange relationship with said. In discussing the hack itself, Franken pointed out that one means of hacking the system was to “mess with Google’s algorithms” to make reports from Russian state-controlled RT or Sputnik show up higher in the rankings.

What he’s referring to, if I understand him correctly, isn’t “messing with” Google’s search ranking algorithms directly. Instead, he’s referring to what most of us call “black hat search engine optimization“: the intentional manipulation of the way setearch engines work to get an illegitimate source to the top of the search results.

Regardless, it seems like our discussion of Russian hacking, collusion with US interests and the rest is greatly confused by not knowing what the “hack” actually was. Right now, we have an idea of Russian hacking, allegations of Trump Camp collusion, discoveries of conversations between principals in this story, potential perjury of our nation’s Attorney General… anything but hard fact on which to base a reasonable decision.

With any other type of crime, there’s a dead body, a missing item, a victim. There is physical proof that something happened, if not what happened or who did it. And for better or worse, our sense of the importance and severity of the crime reflects the physical proof of the act. Here, we have nothing.

It’s hard to imagine the American public continuing to be interested in this story long-term without a lot firmer proof of what went wrong in the first place. What exactly did the Russian hack of our elections look like?


Round-up of Russian meteor news

Just because there’s so much news and information coming out about what is probably going to go down as one of the world’s worst meteor disasters in terms of human toll, I thought I’d get right out in front with a quick round-up of news and resources.

First, the most amazing video, ever. A dash cam shot of the meteor going right overhead. This had to be alarming, yet the cool Russian driver never even had to turn off his slamin’ beats:

[youtube][/youtube] has lots more videos, which they’re updating as they go. does a great job rounding up a lot of facts and figures about the nature of meteorite impacts:

When was the last comparable meteorite strike?

In 2008, astronomers spotted a meteor heading toward Earth about 20 hours before it entered the atmosphere. It exploded over the vast African nation of Sudan, causing no known injuries. The largest known meteorite strike in recent times was the “Tunguska event” that hit Russia in 1908. Even that strike, which was far bigger than the one that happened over Russia on Friday, didn’t injure anyone. Scientists believe that an even larger meteorite strike may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. According to that theory, the impact would have thrown up vast amounts of dust that blanketed the sky for decades and altered the climate on Earth.

They also detail that Tunguska Event, which happened in an area so remote, no one is even entirely sure that it was a meteor.

And of course, lots of information is coming in from the Twitters. First and formost, @AstroKatie and @Summer_Ash set us all straight on the differences between meteorids, meteors, meteorites:

Physicist Matthew R. Frances ( @DrMRFrances ) tells us to chill a little:

And for those interested in why this whole event is unrelated to Asteroid DA14:

What is even more important: fragments of 2012 DA14 could never enter the atmosphere as far north as latitude 55 N (Chelyabinsk). Fragments in orbits similar to that of the asteroid, have a theoretical radiant at declination -81 degrees, i.e. almost at the southern celestial pole. They hence approach earth from due south. This means that the northern hemisphere is out of reach of these fragments: the northern hemisphere represents (as seen from these approaching fragments) the “back side” of the earth. They can’t reach it: they would have to pass earth and then turn back in order to do so.

Basically, the asteroid DA14 is coming at us from due south, so fragments of that asteroid, were they even potentially hitting the Earth, would hit the southern hemisphere.

One of my favourites, Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait, is also covering the event, and adds that, sadly, hoax videos are coming in as fast and furious as anything:

[Let me be clear: This is breaking news, and reports are coming in so fast I can’t keep up. I’ll update this post as I can, but treat everything here as tentative until I can get more information! Note also lots of hoaxes are turning up, like a video of a flaming crater that’s actually a flaming pit in Turlmenistan that’s been burning for decades (called “The Door to Hell”). Be cautious and be skeptical.]

Update 11:11: Matt Frances ( @DrMRFrances ) updates his blog with some thoughts on the wider meaning of the meteor:

For me, the takeaway message from the Russian meteor—and asteroid 2012 DA14—is that we need to do better at looking for dangerous meteors and asteroids. Astronomers (both professional and amateur) have identified nearly all of the biggest near-Earth objects (NEOs): the ones that, in the unlikely event they impact Earth, could cause mass extinctions like the one that probably wiped out the dinosaurs. However, the smaller rocks—called either asteroids or meteoroids—are harder to spot and to track.

Update 11:19: Russian officials are reporting that 950 people have sought out medical attention after the meteor, including 159 children. Three meteorites have been recovered, including one that left a six foot wide crater

Update 12:43: Sigh. Sloppy Reporting Watch issued for the New York Times.

  • Not a single credible report backs up this tweeted claim. Not. One. All of the damage and injuries reported there have come from the sonic boom.
  • The title of the article, “Debris and a Boom, Likely From a Meteor, Hit Siberia” is just crap. Of course, it is a meteor. And the debris backs up the idea that people got hurt by meteorites.
  • “Russian experts believe the blast was caused by a 10-ton meteor known as a bolide..” Sloppy. A bolide is any meteor that explodes on contact with the Earth’s atmosphere. It isn’t a special type of meteor.
  • Regarding asteroid DA14, soon to pass by Earth, ““What we witnessed today may have been the precursor of that asteroid,” said Mr. Dudorov in a telephone interview.” Call this “Citation Needed,” as every credible source says there’s no way these two events are related. Should never have been included.