Obama reportedly ordered implants to be deployed in key Russian networks

Enlarge (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Maria Joner)

In his final days as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama authorized a covert hacking operation to implant attack code in sensitive Russian networks. The revelation came in an 8,000-word article The Washington Post published Friday that recounted a secret struggle to punish the Kremlin for tampering with the 2016 election.

According to Friday's article, the move came some four months after a top-secret Central Intelligence Agency report detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin's direct involvement in a hacking campaign aimed at disrupting or discrediting the presidential race. Friday's report also said that intelligence captured Putin's specific objective that the operation defeat or at least damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and help her Republican rival Donald Trump. The Washington Post said its reports were based on accounts provided by more than three dozen current and former US officials in senior positions in government, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In the months that followed the August CIA report, 17 intelligence agencies confirmed with high confidence the Russian interference. After months of discussions with various advisors, Obama enacted a series of responses, including shutting down two Russian compounds, sanctioning nine Russian entities and individuals, and expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the US. All of those measures have been known for months. The Post, citing unnamed US officials, said Obama also authorized a covert hacking program that involved the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the US Cyber Command. According to Friday's report:

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Windows 10 S security brought down by, of course, Word macros

Enlarge / The Windows 10 S default wallpaper is a rather attractive simplified version of the Windows 10 default wallpaper. (credit: Microsoft)

The major premise justifying Windows 10 S, the new variant of Windows 10 that can only install and run applications from the Windows Store, is that by enforcing such a restriction, Windows 10 S can—like iOS and Chrome OS—offer greater robustness and consistency than regular Windows. For example, as Microsoft has recently written, apps from the Windows Store can't include unwanted malicious software within their installers, eliminating the bundled spyware that has been a regular part of the Windows software ecosystem.

If Windows 10 S can indeed provide much stronger protection against bad actors—both external ones trying to hack and compromise PCs and internal ones, such as schoolkids—then its restrictions represent a reasonable trade-off. The downside is that you can't run arbitrary Windows software; the upside is that you can't run arbitrary Windows malware. That might not be the right trade-off for every Windows user, but it's almost surely the right one for some.

But if that protection is flawed—if the bad guys can somehow circumvent it—then the value of Windows 10 S is substantially undermined. The downside for typical users will remain, as there still won't be any easy and straightforward way to install and run arbitrary Windows software. But the upside, the protection against malware, will evaporate.

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Windows 10 S security brought down by, of course, Word macros

Enlarge / The Windows 10 S default wallpaper is a rather attractive simplified version of the Windows 10 default wallpaper. (credit: Microsoft)

The major premise justifying Windows 10 S, the new variant of Windows 10 that can only install and run applications from the Windows Store, is that by enforcing such a restriction, Windows 10 S can—like iOS and Chrome OS—offer greater robustness and consistency than regular Windows. For example, as Microsoft has recently written, apps from the Windows Store can't include unwanted malicious software within their installers, eliminating the bundled spyware that has been a regular part of the Windows software ecosystem.

If Windows 10 S can indeed provide much stronger protection against bad actors—both external ones trying to hack and compromise PCs and internal ones, such as schoolkids—then its restrictions represent a reasonable trade-off. The downside is that you can't run arbitrary Windows software; the upside is that you can't run arbitrary Windows malware. That might not be the right trade-off for every Windows user, but it's almost surely the right one for some.

But if that protection is flawed—if the bad guys can somehow circumvent it—then the value of Windows 10 S is substantially undermined. The downside for typical users will remain, as there still won't be any easy and straightforward way to install and run arbitrary Windows software. But the upside, the protection against malware, will evaporate.

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments