US Might Start A Nuclear War… Because Iranians Wanted Access To Academic Papers Locked Behind A Paywall?

from the seems-a-little-harsh dept

You probably saw one of the many stories about the US government charging nine Iranians with “conducting massive cyber theft campaign on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps“, as the Department of Justice put it in its press release on the move:

“These nine Iranian nationals allegedly stole more than 31 terabytes of documents and data from more than 140 American universities, 30 American companies, five American government agencies, and also more than 176 universities in 21 foreign countries,” said Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. “For many of these intrusions, the defendants acted at the behest of the Iranian government and, specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Department of Justice will aggressively investigate and prosecute hostile actors who attempt to profit from America’s ideas by infiltrating our computer systems and stealing intellectual property. This case is important because it will disrupt the defendants’ hacking operations and deter similar crimes.”

That certainly sounds pretty serious, not least because some believe the US government may use this is a pretext for military action against Iran, possibly involving nuclear strikes. But what exactly did those Iranians allegedly steal?

The members of the conspiracy used stolen account credentials to obtain unauthorized access to victim professor accounts, which they used to steal research, and other academic data and documents, including, among other things, academic journals, theses, dissertations, and electronic books.

That is, they “stole” things like “academic journals, theses, dissertations, and electronic books” — you know, the stuff that professors routinely publish as part of their work. The stuff that they desperately want as many people to read as possible, since that’s how ideas spread, and academic credit is assigned. So rather than some “massive cyber theft” on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is this not actually a bunch of people making copies of academic materials they and others want to read? We already know that Iranians have a particular hunger for academic knowledge of exactly this kind. An article published in Science in 2016 analyzed who was downloading unauthorized copies of scientific papers from Sci-Hub. Here’s one striking result:

Of the 24,000 city locations to which [Sci-Hub downloaders] cluster, the busiest is Tehran, with 1.27 million requests. Much of that is from Iranians using programs to automatically download huge swaths of Sci-Hub’s papers to make a local mirror of the site, [Sci-Hub’s founder] Elbakyan says. Rahimi, the engineering student in Tehran, confirms this. “There are several Persian sites similar to Sci-Hub,” he says. “So you should consider Iranian illegal [paper] downloads to be five to six times higher” than what Sci-Hub alone reveals.

Given that concentration of downloads from Sci-Hub in Iran, it’s almost surprising the accused needed to break into US universities at all. The Department of Justice press release says that this activity has been going on since 2013, so maybe Iranians hadn’t turned to Sci-Hub at that point. And perhaps there was other information they were seeking that was not available on Sci-Hub. A surprisingly precise figure of 31 terabytes in total is mentioned: how, exactly, was that calculated? After all, making copies of documents does not remove them, and people who break into systems tend not to leave notes about what they have “exfiltrated”. It’s hard to escape the feeling that 31 terabytes is simply the total amount of data they could have copied with all the credentials they obtained, and is used in the press release to make the incident sound bigger than it really is in order to justify any subsequent bellicose actions.

Of course, however much of whatever material was downloaded, breaking into other people’s systems and accounts using stolen credentials is never justified. It’s likely that the 8,000 compromised email accounts exposed a great deal of highly-sensitive personal information, which would arguably be a much more serious matter than the fact that journals, theses, dissertations, and electronic books were downloaded.

Still, this story doesn’t really seem to be about 1337 Iranian government haxxors trying to undermine the US university system with a “massive cyber theft”, as the over-the-top press release rather implies. It’s more a bunch of unscrupulous individuals using fairly simple phishing techniques to get their hands on otherwise unavailable academic material, apparently to sell to others, at least according to the Department of Justice. It also suggests that if more of this academic work were freely available under open access licenses for everyone’s benefit, rather than locked up behind paywalls, there would be less of an incentive for people to engage in this kind of illegal behavior. To say nothing of less risk of a nuclear war.

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Comments on “US Might Start A Nuclear War… Because Iranians Wanted Access To Academic Papers Locked Behind A Paywall?”

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coward (anon) says:

Depends on subject

I would think that without knowing the subject matter of the “stolen” papers we can’t form an opinion of as to the severity of the crime. Were these papers on nerve gas research, missile guidance systems, nuclear reactors, human cloning or other potentially deadly subjects? Or just more mundane subjects such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: They may just lie.

The pretense that Iraq had WMDs (some of which we sold to Hussein, which he flushed as soon as the US started saber rattling) was entirely manufactured from whole cloth. The Valerie Plame affair was all about her husband writing an article whisleblowing the cause for Bush’s war: Nigeria wasn’t selling Iraq yellowcake after all, and Iraq wasn’t trying to buy any.

And Kuwait was an aristocracy controlled oligarchy until Hussein invaded it at which point it became a democracy whose freedoms we were defending / avenging.

So if this incident becomes justification for war, we’re likely to see a bundle of lies to try to justify it.

The thing is, the Nth Country Experiment long demonstrated that information leaks. Someone knowing secrets is never moral grounds to attack them. Of course it’ll more than convince Trump’s base, but then why bother with basis in fact when clever memes are enough.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: They may just lie.

And the secret about secrets is that if you want to keep something secret, tell no one. If you must, tell one other person, but then expect the secret to get out. The issue with leaks in general is that too many people know about the secrets and they eventually get to someone with some morals who believes that the secret should not be secret after all. Even if you use your secrets to justify a war.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Hillary wanted nuclear war

At what point did she say or even imply as much?

Until Trump, I was confident that no-one wanted to pop a nuke, especially if they went through the cold war.

It’s one of those things that I couldn’t figure out regarding Iran: Owning nukes is a straightjacket and actually confines what a state can say or do without international repercussions, so it would be stupid of Iran to want bomb-grade fissile fuel.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Clinton is cold-war savvy, not a nuclear hawk.

Do me the favor of finding me a quote of Hillary Clinton regarding the nuclear option — referring to actual nukes and not parliamentary procedure — that is on a site other than a far-right news source. You see, given we live in an era that news sources are questionable, I tend to want to withhold judgement when there isn’t a consensus on given facts. It’s a measure towards protecting myself from yellow journalism.

To be fair, ever since the Reagan Doctrine a nuclear strike has been on the table as a matter of US policy, which Reagan stated to rekindle nuclear escalation.

Context: Nixon, Ford and Carter were moving towards a policy in line with Peaceful Coexistence as per agreements made between the USSR and China, but Communism was too godless for Reagan, and so he started saber rattling for Jesus.

Given Clinton was politically active during this period, she would comprehend that US policy was to keep nuclear weapons on the table even if that is not common knowledge or a popular idea in the twenty-first century. It’s a bit like admitting your company seeks profits first when you’d rather the people believe you just want to provide them a good, stylish product.

And this said, Clinton is absolutely hawkish, and willing to continue US’ military policies perpetuated from Reagan forward, but that is a long way from saying she’s eager to use the US nuclear arsenal. Far from it.

You’ll have to be more specific regarding the Syrian no-fly zone. Syria is not a nuclear power, and the US policy remains (to this day, I believe) never to initiate a nuclear war but certainly to finish one.

Agammamon says:

Re: Depends on subject

I don’t think that really matters.

The underlying crime – pirating – is the same no matter what the actual content. The only real difference, from a legal standpoint, is whether they were copying classified material or not.

And there’s a lot of unclassified research on chemical weapons, missile guidance, reactors, cloning, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Depends on subject

Human cloning being a deadly subject is laughable. Given that cloning is good only for producing humans with a worse rate of success and more defects. The only thing deadly about it is the fate of the clones given current technology and its limitations. You would have better quality and quantity of soldiers by paying poor people in food to screw – even if money was no object.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Backups?

“Stolen” doesn’t mean what you or the reporter think it means in this case.

Actually, it doesn’t mean what the DOJ seems to be saying in this case either. You can’t “steal” creative works, you can only “infringe” the copyright. You can “steal” a physical book, but that’s only because it’s in physical form and you’re not stealing the information inside it, only the paper on which it’s printed.

The actual crime isn’t copyright infringement nor is it theft of anything physical, and it never was. We also don’t know if any of the information taken was classified like weapons or security research, etc. The crime is unauthorized access to computer systems, which would be a felony regardless of what was downloaded. If the intrusion was done at the behest of the Iranian military it’s likely the researchers were targeted because they’re researching subjects of interest to their military much like China, Russia, the US, and any other country’s intelligence organs would do. Basically, this is just “how the game is played” including the over the top fanfare about the uncovering and prosecution (in absentia) of those believed behind it.

The other point to be made is that “stealing” or downloading the information off computer servers doesn’t mean that the information was “taken” as in depriving the owner from their use. No one ever said the information was then destroyed/deleted after being downloaded!

This is mostly just posturing from the US DOJ. They can prosecute all they want, but the likelihood of those Iranians, esp if they worked for the Iranian gov, ever ending up in US custody is vanishingly small.

Anonymous Coward says:

It is so freaking great that the so-called “experts” and politicians alike are so willing to throw around the nuke threat like it isn’t all us regular folk who have our heads on the chopping block.
The chance of nuclear strikes should at all times be zero if we have slightly sane people in charge, because what the heck can justify global disaster? All we ever would accomplish is retaliation until everyone is either dead or back in the stone-age.
I know that I am stating something very obvious and yet some people think that it is okay to state that “it’s gonna end in nukes” to create headlines.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: The chance of nuclear strikes should at all times be zero...

…even if we have entirely insane people in charge, even if the patients are running the madhouse (which they commonly are).

This is something Jefferson noted: we can’t trust the state with any greater amount of firepower than we can trust the public. Of course he also predicted that once we made bombs great enough, we’d be enlightened enough (or frightened enough) to abolish war forever.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Not well chosen

about 1337 Iranian government haxxors trying to undermine the US university system with a "massive cyber theft"

This was not a well-chosen phrase. About 90% of readers are going to read that as "one thousand three hundred thirty-one" instead of "leet". Expect to see that number reported in other media as "thousands".

Anonymous Coward says:

The proliferation of medical knowledge can only benefit humanity, as the ancient Greeks knew thousands of years before our time. If I were Dictator of Earth, I’d beat the secrets out of every doctor, researcher and surgeon with my bare hands for the greater good of everybody.

I fully support the Iranians for not cowing to the ethically bankrupt paywall system that never would have existed in the first place if it weren’t for pure capitalistic greed and a complete disregard for human life among those who hold those very lives in their hands. May their people be healthier and happier as a result of this knowledge, and I hope they do their part in spreading and translating this knowledge as far and as wide as possible.

To those who will have a harder time paying off their student loans and tuition fees, fuck ’em. Everyone has these fees. My mother had to pay for her schooling, a mortgage, car payments and raise two kids without violating the ethics and principles of her professional field in order to do so. She was in a position in many jobs where she could have embezzled millions of dollars in money, corporate secrets, government secrets and patient data. She could have even justified it if she wanted to, all things considered, but she never broke her ethics, her principles or her oaths even once.

Why should people in medicine — who are supposed to be indoctrinated with the desire to spread knowledge rather than hoard it — get a free pass and a nod of understanding for violating ethical protocols they swore to, in honour of those who have been sworn to them for millenia, simply because PhD courses are expensive and they don’t want to wait any longer to get that Mercedes?


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