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Hackers have taken down dozens of 911 centers. Why is it so hard to stop them?

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When news broke last week of a hacking attack on Baltimore’s 911 system, Chad Howard felt a rush of nightmarish memories.

Howard, the information technology manager for Henry County, Tennessee, faced a similar intrusion in June 2016, in one of the country’s first so-called ransomware attacks on a 911 call center. The hackers shut down the center’s computerized dispatch system and demanded more than $2,000 in bitcoin to turn it back on. Refusing payment, Howard’s staff tracked emergency calls with pencil and paper for three days as the system was rebuilt.

“It basically brought us to our knees,” Howard recalled.

Nearly two years later, the March 25 ransomware attack on Baltimore served as another reminder that America’s emergency-response networks remain dangerously vulnerable to criminals bent on crippling the country’s critical infrastructure ─ either for money, or something more nefarious.

There have been 184 cyberattacks on public safety agencies and local governments in the past 24 months, according to a compilation of publicly reported incidents by the cybersecurity firm SecuLore Solutions. That includes Atlanta, which fell victim to a ransomware attack a couple days before the one on Baltimore, scrambling the operations of many agencies, but not the 911 system.

 Robert Mohan installs new radio equipment at the 911 dispatch center at the Rensselaer County Public Safety Building in Troy, New York. Mike Groll / AP file

911 centers have been directly or indirectly attacked in 42 of the 184 cases on SecuLore’s list, the company says. Two dozen involved ransomware attacks, in which hackers use a virus to remotely seize control of a computer system and hold it hostage for payment.

Most of the other attacks involve “denial of service,” in which centers are immobilized by a flood of automated bogus calls. One of the first occurred in October 2016, when Meetkumar Desai, then 18, of Arizona, distributed a computer bug on Twitter that overwhelmed 911 centers in 12 states. The motivations for such attacks are often less about the money than doing damage — sometimes as a form of protest, as when the “hacktivist” group Anonymous took down Baltimore’s city website after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, experts say. Desai reportedly told authorities he meant his attack more as a prank.

 Meetkumar Desai, who pleaded guilty in an August 2016 cyber attack on Phoenix-area 911 emergency systems. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

“911 is the perfect [target] because it can’t afford to be down,” said Tim Lorello, SecuLore’s president and CEO.

This is how 911 works: When someone dials for help ─ typically from a mobile phone ─ the call gets routed from a cell tower to a 911 center, where a “telecommunicator” answers the phone and gathers basic information. The telecommunicator enters that information into a computer-aided dispatch system, where a dispatcher picks it up and coordinates a response from firefighters, police officers or ambulances.

This 911 system relies on redundancy, meaning that call centers that are taken out of service by a hacking attack can work around the disruption by shutting down the computer-aided dispatch system and sharing information person-to-person, or by sending calls to a nearby center. But depending on the type of attack and a 911 center’s resources, those disruptions can make it more difficult for people to reach someone in case of an emergency. A July 2017 investigation by Scripps News on the vulnerabilities of 911 systems noted the case of a 6-month-old Dallas boy who died after his babysitter’s 911 calls were delayed during an apparent denial-of-service attack.

J.J. Guy, chief technology officer at the cybersecurity firm Jask, said that the spread of ransomware attacks on public safety agencies and other key government operations shows the potential for cyberterrorists to target the country’s critical infrastructure.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security outlined in a report how Russian hackers have gained access to American power plants. The hackers did not cause service interruptions, but the fact that they could gain access at all is troubling to security experts.

“To date, if you don’t have credit cards or lots of personal information, attackers had little motivation and thus you were mostly safe,” Guy said in an email. “This will change those dynamics. Manufacturing, logistics, etc — any field with an operations mindset that loses money when ‘the line is down’ will be targeted.”

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The attack on Baltimore was discovered March 25, after a morning breach of its computer-aided dispatch system, officials said. The city’s cybersecurity unit took the system down, forcing support staff to pass 911 calls to dispatchers using paper rather than electronically. Call-center operations returned to normal early the next day, officials said. Investigators later determined that the intrusion was an attempted ransomware attack, but “no ransom was demanded or paid,” a city spokesman James Bentley said. He declined to explain further, saying that “could compromise the investigation.”

Most ransomware cases end similarly, with governments refusing to pay hackers, choosing instead to switch to a more primitive version of 911 services while they rebuild their systems. Governments have caved at times, however, although officials decline to say much about those incidents, out of concern that it will encourage more attacks.

Another problem with the current 911 system is that it doesn’t accommodate the ways people communicate in the modern world ─ through texts, photos, videos, etc. That is why the 911 industry is pushing telecommunication companies and state and local governments to adopt what it calls Next Generation 911, which allows callers to send data through approved telecommunications carriers and internet service providers (while still taking calls from landlines).

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Afghanistan: Gunmen kill two female Supreme Court judges in Kabul car ambush | World News

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Gunmen killed two female judges from Afghanistan’s Supreme Court in an early morning ambush, which also saw their driver wounded.

The attack happened as the two judges, who have not yet been named, were driving to their office in Kabul in a court vehicle on Sunday, a court official said.

It was the latest attack in the Afghan capital during peace talks between Taliban and Afghan government officials in Doha, Qatar.

No one has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack. A spokesman for the Taliban said its fighters were not involved.

A woman cries at the scene of the deadly ambush. Pic: AP
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A woman cries at the scene of the deadly ambush. Pic: AP

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani issued a statement on Sunday condemning attacks on civilians by the Taliban and other militant groups.

Mr Ghani said “terror, horror and crime” was not a solution to Afghanistan‘s problem and urged the Taliban to accept “a permanent ceasefire”.

Government officials, journalists, and activists have been targeted in recent months, stoking fear particularly in Kabul.

The Taliban has denied involvement in some of the attacks, but has said its fighters would continue to “eliminate” important government figures, though not journalists or civil society members.

Rising violence has complicated US-brokered peace talks taking place in Doha as Washington withdraws troops.

Sources on both sides say negotiations are only likely to make substantive progress once US President-elect Joe Biden
takes office and makes his Afghan policy known.

The number of US troops in Afghanistan has been reduced to 2,500, the lowest level of American forces there since 2001.

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COVID-19: First person in Brazil inoculated as two coronavirus vaccines approved | World News

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A nurse has become the first person in Brazil to receive a coronavirus jab just hours after the country’s health regulator approved two vaccines.

Monica Calazans, 54, who works on the coronavirus frontline, was vaccinated in a ceremony in Sao Paulo.

The rollout of the vaccines made by Sinovac and AstraZeneca comes after months of delay and political disputes over the immunisation programme.

SP - Sao Paulo - 01/17/2021 - SAO PAULO, FIRST VACCINATE CORONAVAC - The nurse at the Emilio Ribas Institute, Monica Calazans, 54 years old, living in Itaquera, east of Sao Paulo, celebrates after receiving the first dose of the Coronavac vaccine that was authorized for emergency use by ANVISA, in a decision taken this Sunday 17 after a meeting that lasted 5 hours at the institution's headquarters in Brasilia. Photo: Suamy Beydoun / AGIF
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The 54-year-old nurse celebrates the milestone

Brazil currently has six million doses of Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine ready to distribute in the next few days, and is awaiting the arrival of another two million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University jab.

“This is good news for Brazil, but six million doses are still very few,” said Ethel Maciel, an epidemiologist at the Federal University of Espirito Santo.

“It will not allow the entire population at risk to be fully immunised, nor is it clear how quickly the country will obtain more vaccines.”

Jair Bolsonaro
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Jair Bolsonaro has been criticised for his handling of the pandemic

Vaccination in Brazil is beginning later than neighbours such as Argentina and Chile despite a robust public health system and decades of experience with immunisation campaigns.

The process to present and approve the COVID-19 vaccines was fraught with conflict, as allies of President Jair Bolsonaro sought to cast doubt on the efficacy of the Sinovac shot which had been backed by his political rival, Sao Paulo state’s governor Joao Doria.

Health professionals on the frontline against coronavirus will be the first to receive the jabs.

It will then be extended to others including the indigenous population, people over 60 years of age and people with pre-existing conditions.

Brazil coronavirus cases pass four million
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Brazil has the second highest COVID-19 death toll behind the US

The South American country has now registered 8,455,059 cases since the pandemic began.

Its death toll has risen to 209,296 meaning only the US has suffered more fatalities, according to the Johns Hopkins University.

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Uganda: After contentious election, people needed answers but opposition could not provide any | World News

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We were expecting a cacophony of noise after the Ugandan Election Commission declared the result in a presidential poll that was both contentious and shockingly violent.

However, we did not see any angry chatter, nor collective calls to arms on popular social media sites because the government had switched the internet off.

The streets of the capital Kampala were quiet as members of the military, carrying short-barrelled machine guns, walked languidly down the side of city streets.

Ugandan security forces on patrol a checkpoint Kampala, Uganda, Saturday Jan. 16, 2021, after Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni was declared winner of the presidential elections.
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Ugandan security forces on patrol at a checkpoint in Kampala (Pic: AP)

The 38-year old opposition leader Bobi Wine, who visibly connected with tens of thousands of younger Ugandans during the campaign, had been removed from public view. The security services are surrounding his home and blocking anyone from entering.

In effect, the government has used the tools of state to turn down the noise – to dissipate the heat – after its long-time leader, President Yoweri Museveni, took 58% of the vote.

Mr Wine, a popular pop star turned politician, garnered a respectable but insufficient 35%.

And the authorities’ masterplan seems to be working, at least for now.

We were invited to a press conference by Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party where they were expected to outline their immediate plans, address their leader’s absence, and introduce newly elected parliamentary members to the nation.

The deployment of  soldiers around  Bobi wine`s home in Magere, Kampala, Uganda, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021,  after president Yoweri Museveni was declared  winner by electoral commission this afternoon..(AP Photo/Nicholas Bamulanzeki).
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Soldiers patrol outside Mr Wine’s home (Pic: AP)

But the event proved to be nothing short of a shambles.

The NUP’s spokesman, Joel Senyonyi, began by saying that Mr Wine was now, “effectively under house arrest, an illegal detention”.

He criticised the election as an exercise in mass fraud, “with outcomes from the Election Commission that are as curious and amazing as anyone can imagine”.

But when I asked him what they planned to do about it, the spokesman was unable to offer anything specific.

“What do you want people to do?” I asked.

“Our simple answer to that is we are urging Ugandans to use every means available in the constitution to keep pursuing the change of leadership that we want.”

Supporters of Ugandan President  Yoweri Kaguta Museveni celebrate in Kampala, Uganda, Saturday Jan. 16, 2021, after their candidate was declared winner of the presidential elections. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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Supporters of President Museveni celebrate (Pic: AP)

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Use every constitutional avenue to achieve change. I think that is very clear. Now pardon us, our colleagues (have been raided)…”

The press conference ended abruptly, before any of the new MPs had been introduced, with Mr Senyonyi signalling that some sort of emergency situation had developed.

He left through the gate of the NUP’s headquarters with several party officials and two-dozen members of the media, including Sky News, in tow.

We drove at not insignificant speed to a slum in the capital, then ran down a sewage-strewn track to a small clearing where a man, sitting in a plastic seat, relayed a story about an attack meted out by the security services.

His name was Andrew Natumanya and said he was a volunteer polling agent for the NUP party. He had been collecting declaration forms with results from individual polling stations in central and eastern Uganda when a group of plain clothes policemen had grabbed him, roughed him up and confiscated the documents.

I noticed that journalists and camera operators began to drift away as the young man outlined his experience. His allegations are disturbing and deserving of attention – but they are not unique.

Over the past few months, dozens of NUP party members and supporters have lodged allegations of harassment, beatings and arbitrary arrests as they attempt to challenge a system of government that does not tolerate organised dissent.

Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 35 years in Uganda
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Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 35 years in Uganda

But the National Unity Platform had a crucial opportunity at the press conference to outline their plan, to come up with an approach which exploits and builds on the momentum they have manufactured over the past year.

Should young Ugandans take to the streets? Does the NUP support non-violent protest? How do concerned citizens challenge an election result that many believe is fraudulent?

Today, the people needed answers and the country’s biggest opposition party, minus its leader, could not provide any.

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