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Tech Watch: Hackers on Obama’s Network, Hookers on Craigslist

The campaigns of both Barack Obama and John McCain were attacked by hackers. Who are the suspects? Craiglist is tightening security on its personals section to shutdown solicitations. And AT&T may be embracing the functionality of jailbreak apps for the iPhone.

According to CNN and Newsweek, sources within the campaigns of both Sen. John McCain and President-elect Barack Obama are saying that their computer networks were infiltrated by hackers from undisclosed international locations.

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The hackers gained access to policy documents in both camps, suggesting the involvement of a foreign government who might want an inside track on future negotiations with the U.S. Both the FBI and Secret Service are investigating the incident, and both campaigns are said to have hired outside consultancies to plug up their respective breaches, once they were alerted.

There are two main assailants thought to fit the crime: China, whose government has done this sort of thing before, and the Russian bloc, where a disproportionate amount of insidious network activity seems to originate. In 2007, the Chinese government was accused of hacking federal computer systems in the U.S., France, Germany and the UK. In its recent conflicts with Georgia and Estonia, Russian nationalists were said to be staging network attacks on important public and private websites in those countries.

While other governments were apparently engaged in cyber-subversion, ours was attempting to curb the welter of lascivious ads in the “erotic services” section of Craigslist. The classifieds company said on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the attorneys general of 40 states to more heavily regulate the section, which is used by all kinds of dubious characters to solicit services that aren’t exactly legal in most states.

The AG of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, was first to bring this to the attention of Craigslist executives, who in March instituted a new ad-verification policy that required the phone numbers of people placing ads. While you wouldn’t expect these folks to be shy about a tame little divulgence like that, the regulation cut down on the number of erotic services ads significantly.

Now Craigslist will be taking even more aggressive action, under the agreement reached Thursday, asking for valid ID and charging a small fee for each ad — about $5 or $10 — that requires credit card information. The company says it will donate the proceeds to charities that combat exploitation and human trafficking. And while that might appear to be progress, it’s not hard to imagine a method by which “erotic services” posters could shift to using other Craigslist sections like “women seeking men,” gaming the system by posting ads with subtle but coded language.

Keeping the riff-raff from using your good product in unintended ways is, of course, one of the mighty banes of developing a good product. Ralph de la Vega should know; he’s the CEO of AT&T Wireless, and it’s with his aid that Apple has been attempting to shut down corridors of misuse for the iPhone. Jailbroken iPhones can do things that goody-two-shoes iPhones could never dream of — like tether to a laptop to share a wireless Internet connection. But unlike Craigslist, who has decided to force its users to shape up, AT&T might just be caving to public demand; de la Vega indicated in an interview with Michael Arrington of TechCrunch this week that tethering is indeed coming to the iPhone soon. Other AT&T phones are allowed to do the tethering trick with no problem, including many of RIM’s Blackberry devices.

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But it’s hard to say whether a concession on the part of AT&T will actually make a difference for iPhone users outside the fray of acceptable use. After all, AT&T will likely add the standard tethering charge to plans that use it, and that’s a whopping $60 a month extra. Right now, streamlined jailbreak apps like iModem can do it for free. Then again, AT&T did just bump up its bandwidth limit on its U-verse Internet service to 18Mbps for no extra charge, so iPhone owners can perhaps be more sanguine about the price of tethering.

Apple, too, seems to be treating its customers more responsively. According to AppleInsider, one of the Mac faithful recently got ahold of an email address belonging to an Apple executive, and asked him about the future of the Mac Mini. The diminutive PC has been disappearing from stock in most Apple stores, unreplenished; that usually means end-of-life for a product, in the realm of Apple. The email prompted a phone call from an Apple representative, who told the customer to “be patient,” presumably because their might be a new or heavily-revised device on the way. Maybe the Russians and Chinese should quit their hijinks, take a page from Apple customer service, and approach our President-elect with a friendly phone call.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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