The Daily: Our Country Is Being Hacked

Hi everyone, Happy Friday. We had a busy week exploring some big questions: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel fall? Who is hacking the U.S. economy? And what could possibly have brought Congress together in a rare act of bipartisanship (even if only for a moment)?

Our team also hosted a special live event that went behind the scenes of the making of “Odessa.” If you missed it, you can catch the conversation with Michael Barbaro here, as well as a performance from the Odessa High School marching band.

Today in the newsletter, we follow up on our episode from Tuesday, asking our guest to explain what we can do to keep ourselves, our families, companies and even our cities safe from ransomware attacks. (Sadly, yes, it really is up to us.) Then, we introduce you to the work of two women who have reshaped our world, but who you might not have known about before this week.

Why your cyberhygiene matters — a lot

By Nicole Perlroth

Ransomware attacks have suddenly become our constant background noise. Last month, we rushed to cover the ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, a conduit for nearly half the jet fuel, gas and diesel supplied to the East Coast. And with the price of gas surging, images of cars lined up for blocks, how could we not? Then they came for our meat, hijacking JBS, a Brazilian company that is one of the world’s largest meat suppliers. This, on top of Covid-induced labor shortages at meat plants, hiked the price of carne asada on the menu.

But we can’t cover them all. Ransomware groups have struck our wineries, our professional sports teams, our ferry services and our hospitals — most recently the hospital that services The Villages, the largest retirement community in the United States. They’ve hit an Apple supplier, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington and, perhaps most disturbingly, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency responsible for safeguarding nuclear science and designs. These ransomware attacks are striking every eight minutes. The question is no longer, Who has been hit with ransomware? It’s, Who hasn’t?

Many have asked why the government can’t do more to block these attacks. But the answer is that the government does not own these systems and has very little say over how they secure or do not secure themselves. The vast majority of America’s food and water supplies, the power grid, dams, even nuclear plants, are still owned by the private sector. And business lobbyists have rejected every serious effort to regulate cybersecurity for the private sector. The market, not the government, decides how secure Americans are, when it comes to deflecting cyberattacks. So we’ve essentially left every business and individual to fend for themselves.

Over and over and over again we see that these ransomware groups break in through simple means: a stolen password or phishing attacks, in which they just convince an employee to click on a malicious link or enter a password into an attackers’ site. And unfortunately, businesses are still calculating that it’s cheaper for them to pay a multimillion-dollar ransom than it is to take inventory of their networks, unplug outdated software (or patch it), switch up employee passwords from time to time, require multifactor authentication, and conduct regular phishing simulations until employees learn to stop clicking.

The way out of our cyber-predicament is cyberhygiene — the accumulation of day in, day out investments and inconveniences of hardening ourselves to attacks. If you forget to brush your teeth and floss, you’ll get cavities. If you’re really negligent, you’ll need a root canal.

Online, it’s much the same. Good cyberhygiene requires using a password manager, or just not using the same, weak password across multiple sites. It’s not clicking on phishing emails. It’s turning on two-factor authentication. It’s running those pesky software updates that take you away from your device for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s backing up your data. It’s watching your back, and not giving any old website the ability to track your location, access your contacts or your webcam, without good reason. It’s freezing your credit when you learn your personal data has been hacked, yet again, in a breach of a retailer. It’s not emailing your Social Security number or nude selfies to anyone who asks. It’s not blasting out every transaction you make on Venmo. Or posting screenshots of your Gmail password on Twitter (Hello Congressman Mo Brooks!) It’s using encrypted messaging apps like Signal for your most sensitive communications.

If you do all of those things, you might still get hacked. But you’ll be able to knock out most of the ransomware threats and cyber threats we face. If you don’t, you’re most likely in for the digital equivalent of a root canal, without the anesthetic.

Telling the story of two women whose work has affected you

This week on The Daily, we introduced you to the work of one scientist whose quiet, pioneering work on mRNA has changed the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In this moment, when millions of people have begun to enjoy the freedoms that come with being vaccinated against Covid-19, we really wanted to hear from one of the people who helped get us to this turning point in the pandemic,” Anita Badejo, a senior editor, said. “We were surprised by Dr. Katalin Kariko’s story, and how long it had been overlooked.”

So if you have gotten a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, read on to hear more about the woman whose work has helped shield you from the coronavirus. Then, let us introduce you to another woman whose work has reshaped our world — but who was also overlooked at the time.

Dr. Katalin Kariko: The unlikely pioneer of mRNA vaccines

I heard about Dr. Kariko last winter when the Science editor Celia Dugger said there might be a story in her work. I’d heard about other key players all along, but maybe because she was working for BioNTech and so was not part of academia any more, I just didn’t know about her.

I emailed Dr. Kariko and she got back to me almost instantaneously. I interviewed her for the first time soon afterward and was immediately drawn into her story. She was a scientist’s scientist. Someone who does the work because she loves it and who is not motivated by fame or fortune.

While she faced setbacks, including being fired from her job, she viewed them not as signals that she was inadequate but instead as incentives to work harder. She went in search of mentors who would take her into their labs even though she had no funding and no published papers. When I spoke to those mentors, they told me they were dazzled by her brilliance and her dogged pursuit of impeccable science. I have written about science Ph.D.s who gave up and pursued other careers because they seemed to be facing a future like Dr. Kariko’s. It says something about her that she refused to slink away when she was rejected. — Gina Kolata, a science reporter at The Times

Linda Amster: A force behind the Pentagon Papers

Fifty years ago this Sunday, The New York Times printed the first of a series of articles on the Pentagon Papers — a top secret report about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The publication kicked off a fight over the freedom of the press that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, a team of Times reporters put together an oral history of the project, and shared those interviews with the audio team. One voice stood out — Linda Amster, the project’s only researcher.

Linda’s work was to verify details in those documents. It was a huge task. But when the papers went to press, her name was omitted from the credits.

We talked to Linda about the thrill and secrecy of the mission — and how she feels about getting her due after the fact. Many view the Pentagon Papers as the biggest scoop of the century. You can hear about it firsthand now.

On The Daily this week

Monday: How did a political coalition come to threaten the position of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader?

Tuesday: Recent cyberattacks have ground major U.S. industries to a halt. Who are the perpetrators and how can they be stopped?

Wednesday: This week, the U.S. Senate put partisanship aside to pass a huge spending bill. The reason for this truce: China.

Thursday: Our conversation with Dr. Kariko.

Friday: Part three of Day X.

That’s it for The Daily newsletter. See you next week.

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