Washington Post Falsely Claims Russia Hacked Vermont Utility, Because OMG RUSSIANS!

from the show-your-math dept

When a mainstream press that isn’t always good at what it does meets technology it doesn’t understand, the end result is often frustrating, if not comedic. Hacking is certainly no exception, given it’s a realm where perpetrators are difficult to identify, hard proof is often impossible to come by, and hackers worth their salt either leave false footprints — or no footprints at all. Throw in a press that’s incapable of identifying and avoiding its own nationalism, and often all-too-gullible to intelligence industry influence, and you’ve got a fairly solid recipe for dysfunction when it comes to hacking-related news coverage.

Some of the resulting coverage has been highly entertaining — such as CNN using a screen shot from the popular game Fallout 4 in a story about hacking and hoping nobody would notice. Other examples have been decidedly more troubling, such as the Washington Post’s epic face plant over the holiday break.

Last Saturday the Post ran a story claiming that Russia was responsible for the hacking of Burlington Electric, a Vermont utility. According to the original Washington Post story, government sources claimed that code “associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe” was detected at the utility. The story was stuffed to the gills with all manner of pearl-clutching and outrage among politicians convinced Putin was actively trying to bring down the grid:

?Vermonters and all Americans should be both alarmed and outraged that one of the world?s leading thugs, Vladimir Putin, has been attempting to hack our electric grid, which we rely upon to support our quality-of-life, economy, health, and safety,? Shumlin said in a statement. ?This episode should highlight the urgent need for our federal government to vigorously pursue and put an end to this sort of Russian meddling.”

Unsurprisingly, the story quickly gained traction in the media, with numerous reports pouring gasoline on the idea that Russia has escalated its cyber offensives to include targeting sensitive American infrastructure. Many broadly speculated that other utilities had been compromised and that we were at the brink of war.

And while it’s true that the power grid is vulnerable to hackers (increasingly so courtesy of the internet-of-not-so-smart things), it turns out that Putin had nothing to do with the particular “attack” on the Vermont utility. In fact, in a follow up story and corrections made to the original report, the Post ultimately had to acknowledge that the malware in question was only found on one laptop, had nothing to do with the Russian government, and was never actually in contact with the grid itself:

“An employee at Burlington Electric Department was checking his Yahoo email account Friday and triggered an alert indicating that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address associated by authorities with the Russian hacking operation that infiltrated the Democratic Party. Officials told the company that traffic with this particular address is found elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric, suggesting the company wasn?t being targeted by the Russians. Indeed, officials say it is possible that the traffic is benign, since this particular IP address is not always connected to malicious activity.”

That’s obviously a pretty far cry from the hysteria bouncing around the news wires as the new year arrived. Thanks, again, to news outlets that are all too eager to take the breathless claims of a few anonymous officials as gospel without doing the heavy lifting required to first ensure the information is useful, or accurate. As it turns out, the Post hadn’t even bothered to contact Burlington Electric, which was forced to issue its own statement to the Burlington Free Press clarifying what happened, and making it clear the laptop was never in contact with any electrical system.

All told, Burlington Electric had simply received a notification from Homeland Security sent to all utilities warning them to keep an eye out for particular malware. The company only found the malware and laptop in question after doing a scan off all of the company’s systems. And as it turns out, the “Russian malware” in question could have simply been made by a Russian and purchased by anybody. Needless to say, the Washington Post then spent the lion’s share of the next few days editing the story, changing the headline repeatedly, and walking back the story’s claims.

But most of the stories regurgitating the Post’s original claims were never updated or corrected.

Reporting on hacking isn’t easy. Disinformation is everywhere, and many outlets continue to illustrate they’re easily manipulated, thanks to a nationalism bias they’re somehow still unaware of. But the Washington Post simply failed to do even the basics, inflaming notable tensions between two giant countries because it couldn’t bother to pick up the phone. Yes, Russia hacks us (and uses propaganda against us and other countries) constantly. The United States does the same. Proof of either is often impossible to come by, but that still doesn’t mean it’s not required before jumping to conclusions.

As tensions rise facts matter more than ever, and sloppy reporting only fuels those quite intentionally looking to take these often-dangerous and idiotic cyber-offensive policies to an entirely new level.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,
Companies: burlington electric, washington post

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Washington Post Falsely Claims Russia Hacked Vermont Utility, Because OMG RUSSIANS!”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

War on Libel?

I don’t know about ring around the collar. I couldn’t be arsed to contact Whisk, and they probably fudge their stats anyway. So no, this is the insidious terror from which the nation has been distracted too long! Fire up the $17bn Pretreatment And Detergent budget. Deport the dirt.

John Cressman (profile) says:

Fake News in the Mainstream

It seems like the mainstream news outlets are as bad at reporting “fake news” as their much maligned right wing counterparts.

As soon as people realize it’s ALL fake news, the better.

There is no objective news reporting anymore… ANY WHERE. Everything has a spin and thus, is no longer really a NEWS story but an editorial or commentary.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fake News in the Mainstream

I like to still call it news.

Yes it may have a twist or a bias, but there was never such a thing as unbiased news. Everyone has bias, it is just a fact of life. Just the act of deciding what is and is not news worthy creates bias.

If a station wanted to be truly unbiased, they would report on every living thing that came across their desks that they could verify as reasonably accurate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Fake News in the Mainstream

The intent was not to approve of fake news, just the fact that bias cannot be avoided in the news. It’s there, it will not be going anywhere. I just call out the really over the top ones.

That said, I look at these as the same way a lawyer will try to poison a jury by saying something that is not factually true to trick the jury. Sure the Judge may say it has to be stricken from the record and even command the Jury from considering it, but the damage is already done.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Fake News in the Mainstream

News rooms rush stories to print in order to obtain the highly coveted “Breaking News” status which supposedly gives them some sort of exclusive rights to the unvetted stories which may or may not have any factual basis. The troubling aspect is that the news organizations apparently do not care.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fake News in the Mainstream

There has never been objective news reporting… such a thing is virtually impossible.

During the modernist movement, there was a brief window where people reporting/publishing news pushed the idea that what they were doing was objective… but anyone who was actually a part of the news being reported usually saw things otherwise. However, THEY weren’t the ones announcing objective reporting the world.

“Cat found in tree” isn’t even objective reporting, since someone chose to make a news item out of THAT cat in THAT tree, despite the fact that thousands of cats are found in trees every day. And that’s just the headline, without the editorial content.

There’s always an agenda, and always has been. The trick is to get a balanced set of agendas that try to base articles on actual facts and not just make up stories out of whole cloth a la National Enquirer — articles that provide enough information so that you can do your own research to figure out why this bit of information is important.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fake News in the Mainstream

Sorry it now goes beyond that.
The culture of journalism has become the main problem.
Here is James Mitchell on the approach journalists took to interviewing him – and bear in mind that they quite brazenly admitted these things.

I was told by someone who wanted to interview me ‘I am not looking for the truth, but am looking for a quote.’ Another journalist ran something by me she intended to publish. When I told her what she was saying was not even remotely true her response, ‘what I’m going to write about you speaks to a larger truth that may not come across if I stick to the facts of the situation.’”

JMT says:

Re: Fake News in the Mainstream

“As soon as people realize it’s ALL fake news, the better.

There is no objective news reporting anymore…”

This is a ridiculously extremist and ignorant point of view. There’s a big difference between biased or non-objective reporting and actual fake news. Highlighting stories that fit your worldview and ignoring those that don’t, or expressing mainly positive opinions about one particular political party and mainly negative opinions about another is NOT fake news. If you’re really concerned about biased reporting, calling it fake news is a stupid and counterproductive attempt to fix the problem.

Unanimous Cow Herd says:

Re: Fake News in the Mainstream

You can still find intellectually honest statements at various places. TD is one of them. It is impossible with our limited cognitive functions to not be biased in some way. Facts are facts, and can be reported in such a way as to derive a desired narrative. However, truth is truth no matter where it comes from. It does have a ring, and yes, sometimes you hear it in your gut. Oh wait, that’s bias again. Damn you, logic!

kallethen says:

> Some of the resulting coverage has been highly entertaining — such as CNN using a screen shot from the popular game Fallout 4 in a story about hacking and hoping nobody would notice.

Previously, this was the kind of thing we’ve heard of from North Korea’s media (specifically, video game clips of missile launches). Sad to see our media follow those propaganda footsteps.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Did you remember the part during the campaign where Chris Cuomo lied to you about your right to read wikileaks? Why that man still has a job at CNN is a big mystery.

Why people still think CNN is credible is an even bigger one. It’s not like they had one of their talking heads lie about your ability to read information that implicated them in journalistic malpractice or anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Did you remember the part during the campaign where Chris Cuomo lied to you about your right to read wikileaks?


The same thing was said after the Chelsea Manning leaks. I don’t remember there being so much as a whimper about our rights when it came to them releasing classified documents.

But now? Read away! It’s your right!

And before anyone dares call me a liberal/Dem/lefty/whatever-else-you-got, here’s one of the sources:


So what’s the difference now?

We want transparency with respect to the DNC, but not on what our own government is doing?
What if there was classified information in those emails?

Would we be cheering Wikileaks then?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

What if there was classified information in those emails?
Would we be cheering Wikileaks then?

YES… If government did not lie then we would not need wikileaks… but all government lie and always will… so we need all information to be public to hold the liars accountable… regardless of what the cheerleaders think!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Actually I don’t. I just have a tendency to find it tragicomical to look at stills of their maps and other visuals. For some reason, mostly that is CNN and FOX. Since FOX doesn’t even bother with pretending and thus don’t use visual aids much for their rumour-mongering, CNN is by far the kings of bad journalism on that niche.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

For 70 years, the American Left had a love affair with the Russians — they refused to criticize even the murderer Joseph Stalin!

Bizarrely, these same people are now finding Russians under every bedcover.

The US (lately in the form of the CIA) has practiced for 100 years how to fight Russians, so they really don’t want to have to learn any new tricks.

E.g., the US finds it a little embarrassing to take on the Chinese when they own ~$1 trillion of US debt, and the US has outsourced nearly every manufactured item to China. It also isn’t clear whether the US could sustain any war against China for more than a few weeks — the length of time since the last freighter from China unloaded.

It’s amazing how prescient Orwell was!

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m not American or Russian, but I’ve crossed the borders of both countries in multiple places. The Russian borders were heavily militarized; American borders are not.

As someone further up said, “Christ you Russian trolls are predictable.” A Russian would see borders as militarized. Americans, Canadians and those from the EU would not.

Dunno about that visitor from Christmas Island.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

American or Russian, but I’ve crossed the borders of both countries in multiple places. The Russian borders were heavily militarized; American borders are not.

American borders with Mexico and Canada.

Russian borders with North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakstan, Ukraine.

In those places I’d rather be on the Russian side of the border.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...