“Hacker X”—the American who built a pro-Trump fake news empire—unmasks himself


Ars Technica 14 October, 2021 - 07:00am 16 views

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This is the story of the mastermind behind one of the largest "fake news" operations in the US.

For two years, he ran websites and Facebook groups that spread bogus stories, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. Under him was a dedicated team of writers and editors paid to produce deceptive content—from outright hoaxes to political propaganda—with the supreme goal of tipping the 2016 election to Donald Trump.

Through extensive efforts, he built a secret network of self-reinforcing sites from the ground up. He devised a strategy that got prominent personalities—including Trump—to retweet misleading claims to their followers. And he fooled unwary American citizens, including the hacker's own father, into regarding fake news sources more highly than the mainstream media.

Pundits and governments just might have given Russia too much credit, he says, when a whole system of manipulating people's perception and psychology was engineered and operated from within the US.

"Russia played such a minor role that they weren't even a blip on the radar," the hacker told me recently. "This was normal for politicians, though… if you say a lie enough times, everyone will believe it."

Previously dubbed "Hacker X," he's now ready to reveal who he is—and how he did it.

The fake news impresario who has now decided to break his silence is "ethical hacker" Robert Willis.

Some in the information security community might know "Rob" today as an active member who speaks at conferences and works with the Sakura Samurai ethical hacking group. (The Sakura Samurai have, on many occasions, responsibly disclosed vulnerabilities in the computer systems of government and private entities. I have previously interacted with Rob on about two occasions, minimally, when I had questions regarding Sakura Samurai's vulnerability writeups.)

But back in 2015, Willis was just another hacker looking for an IT job. He had already received one job offer—but still had an interview scheduled at one final company.

"I was thinking of not showing up to the interview," he told me. "I had, after all, just committed to another company."

That final company was opaque—it would not reveal either its name or the actual job duties until Willis showed up in person. But the opacity was itself intriguing. Willis decided to do the interview.

"I showed up at the location, which was a large corporate building. I was given directions to wait downstairs until I was collected. The secretiveness was intriguing. It may have turned some people off, but I love an adventure. I had not been given any information on the job other than that they were very excited, because to find someone like me was very rare—I had tons of random, overlapping, highly technical skills from years of wearing multiple hats at smaller private companies."

Even before his ethical hacking days at Sakura Samurai, Willis had gained an extensive technical skill set in networking, web applications, hacking, security, search engine optimization (SEO), graphic design, entrepreneurship, and management. He knew how to take advantage of search engine algorithms, once, he said, getting a random phrase to the No. 1 spot on one engine within 24 hours. "Many will say this is/was impossible, but I have the receipts," he said, "and so do other credible people."

At the interview site, a man came down to get him, and they rode the elevator to a floor with a nearly empty office. Inside waited a woman beside three chairs. They all sat. His hosts finally revealed the name of their company: Koala Media. The moment felt like an orchestrated Big Reveal.

"I wasn't scared but excited at how crazy this was already turning out [to be]," Willis told me. "I listened. I was told that there were big plans for the office I was sitting in and that they had already hired the initial writers and editor for the new operation."

The interviewers at the company told Willis that "everything was to be built with security in mind—at extreme levels."

Should he get the job, his primary role would be to rapidly expand a single, popular website already owned by Koala Media. For this, they needed someone with Willis' diverse skill set.

Then the interview took a political turn. "They told me that they were against big companies and big government because they are basically the same thing," Willis said. They said they had readers on the right and the left. They said they were about "freedom." That sounded OK to Willis, who describes himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative—"very punk rock, borderline anarchist."

Then the interviewers told him, "If you work for us, you can help stop Hillary Clinton."

"I hated the establishment, Republicans, and Democrats, and Hillary was the target because she was as establishment as it got and was the only candidate that was all but guaranteed to be running on the main ticket in the future 2016 cycle," said Willis. "If I were to choose a lesser evil at the time, it would have, without a doubt, been the Republican Party, since I had moved to the new city due to the Democrats literally destroying my previous home state. It felt like good revenge."

Willis says he had no indication that the company that was about to recruit him was extreme or would become so in the future. In his perception, the company was just "investigative" with regard to its journalism.

When Koala offered him the job, he took it.

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Today "Quantum Leap" series creator Donald P. Bellisario joins Ars Technica to answer once and for all the lingering questions we have about his enduringly popular show. Was Dr. Sam Beckett really leaping between all those time periods and people or did he simply imagine it all? What do people in the waiting room do while Sam is in their bodies? What happens to Sam's loyal ally Al? 30 years following the series finale, answers to these mysteries and more await.

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Apple Says iOS is Safer Than Android Because Sideloading Apps Isn't Allowed

MacRumors 14 October, 2021 - 08:10am

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Apple explains security & privacy risks of side-loading in detailed new paper

AppleInsider 14 October, 2021 - 08:10am

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Apple has published a new research paper taking a deep dive into some of the security and privacy risks of side-loading, or obtaining apps outside of the App Store.

The whitepaper, "Building a Trust Ecosystem for Millions of Apps," is an update on a previous version released in June. It leaves behind the approach of using fictional characters to explain security threats in favor of a more academic tone.

From the start, the paper takes a hard stance against side-loading, claiming that the practice would "cripple the privacy and security protections that have made iPhone so secure, and expose users to serious security risks."

Apple says that being forced to allow side-loading on iOS would allow harmful apps to proliferate among users, take away user control once apps are already downloaded onto their systems, and mandate removing protections from sensitive areas on an iPhone. The company claims these risks would be present even if side-loading was only available through third-party app stores on a device.

"Users could be forced to sideload an app they need for work or school," Apple writes. "Users also may have no choice other than sideloading an app that they need to connect with family and friends because the app is not made available on the

The rest of the paper takes a deep dive into the current mobile threat landscape, using statistics and examples of current spyware that leverage side-loading or tricking users to spread.

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The research paper comes in response to increasing talk of side-loading as a potential remedy for antitrust concerns. Both the U.S. and European Union, for example, are exploring legislation or rules that could force Apple to allow side-loading on its platforms.

Apple has argued against wide adoption of side-loading in the past, including in court during the Epic Games v. Apple trial. Company CEO Tim Cook also spoke out against the practice in the EU earlier in 2021, claiming that it would threaten iPhone security.

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Compared to previous iterations of its security research, the new white paper is much more in-depth and features expanded information on what it believes are the threats of side-loading. The paper is available to download.

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