Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sunday Reading

Hack Job — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on who’s behind the massive hack of the government and why.

One of things that makes hacking so unsettling is the asymmetry of the situation: Unlike with a physical theft, the victims sometimes don’t know they’re victims for a long time, and once they find out, it’s hard to tell just how badly they’ve been victimized.

That’s true of the massive data breach revealed Thursday affecting 4 million current and former federal employees. There’s still a great deal that hasn’t been explained about why and how the hack happened, and whose data was compromised. (Angry federal employees took to the Facebook page of the Office of Personnel Management to complain about feeling left in the dark about the attacks.) There are, however, some emerging answers to three key questions: Who did it, why, and how it happened.

Early on, the government fingered Chinese hackers in the leak. Bruce Schneier has written for The Atlantic about the dangers of uncritically accepting initial attributions for attacks. The Chinese government has also rejected the claim, saying that it’s a victim of hacking itself. (That’s probably true—and the U.S. admits that it also hacks foreign governments.) But officials says there are fingerprints of known Chinese hackers. Another they’re pointing at China—rather than, say, Russian organized-crime hackers who have also assaulted American computer systems—is the kind of data taken and what’s been done with it.

“They didn’t go to sell the data, which is what criminal groups usually do,” James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The New York Times. The government and outside experts think that, along with the fact that the leak targeted government employees suggest an elaborate effort to build a huge database of information on federal employees. The data reportedly cover employees going back as far as 1985, and includes information on employees who applied for security clearances.

How did they do it, though? The government has a large, costly, sophisticated, and mostly secret system for protecting its data. But that system is, even according to the government, obsolete. It follows an old protocol of attempting to keep hackers outside, like a fence. Newer systems assume hackers will get through the outside defense and try to stop them once they’re inside.

The U.S. had been warned that it wasn’t ready in an inspector general’s report late last year. By the time the report landed, it was apparently too late, but many of the steps it recommended still haven’t been taken. For example:

In the most egregious case cited by the inspector general, outsiders entering the system were not subjected to “multifactor authentication” — the systems that, for example, require a code that is sent to a cellphone to be entered before giving access to a user. Asked about that in an interview, Donna Seymour, the chief information officer at the Office of Personnel Management, said that installing such gear in the government’s “antiquated environment” was difficult and very time consuming, and that her agency had to perform “triage” to determine how to close the worst vulnerabilities.

The government will now institute two-step verification—a step that longtime Atlantic readers will remember James Fallows exhorting them to take as early as the spring of 2011.

Life and Death in Sam Brownback’s Kansas — Kai Wright in The Nation on what refusing to expand Medicaid under Obamacare is doing to the citizens of Kansas.

RaDonna Kuekelhan and her sister, Cathy O’Mara, have spent their whole lives in and around southeast Kansas, a largely rural area wedged up against Oklahoma and Missouri. Long pastoral stretches separate the region’s smattering of ghostly quiet small towns, the depopulated remains of a thriving industrial past. Cathy left the area briefly as a young woman, following a man to Florida, a decision she still regrets.

“I said, ‘God, if you let me get back to Kansas, I will never leave again,’” she recalls, laughing at herself but not really joking. She had missed the closeness of community in Kansas, the way it eases life’s challenges. When she arrived back home without a job, she walked into the factory where her mom worked and started on the line that same day. She’s still there 34 years later.

Closeness has defined Cathy and RaDonna’s relationship, too. The sisters have rarely been separated by more than a long drive. And that is fortunate, because over the past five years, Cathy has been RaDonna’s lifeline as her body has slowly and steadily failed.

RaDonna is dying. She’s a stout, white-haired 59-year-old who’s proudly willful, and she has cheated death twice before. Her first health crisis arrived back in the late 1990s. “It was end of August,” she says. “I went to a softball game and hollered for two hours and I lost my voice. Well, I just assumed it was from the hollering, but it didn’t get no better. So finally my sister told me, ‘You’re going to the doctor.’”

It turned out RaDonna had cancer of the larynx. She says she endured 35 rounds of radiation to beat it back. The treatment was challenging, but at least it was covered. Back then, she had a job making motors for small appliances at Emerson Electric, and it came with a health plan.

Within a couple of years of her recovery, however, Emerson shut down. After two decades in a secure job, RaDonna could now find only temp work, and most of that in factories over the border in Oklahoma. Like most temp work, hers didn’t come with insurance. That made things more complicated when her most recent health crisis began.

In early 2010, she developed severe acid reflux and struggled with fatigue. She was constantly short of breath. “I couldn’t keep nothing on my stomach,” she says now in her gasping whisper, the strongest voice she’s able to muster. “I thought I was having pneumonia.” Cathy scrambled to find a doctor who would see her uninsured sister.

Southeast Kansas is home to four of the state’s five least healthy counties, according to an annual ranking by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. People die younger here than anywhere else in the state. They’re more likely to have diabetes, to be obese, to smoke, and they’re less likely to have insurance coverage for dealing with these ailments. In 2010, as RaDonna grew ill, 16 percent of Americans had no coverage; in Montgomery County, RaDonna’s home, the uninsured rate was nearly 22 percent. Few of these people qualified for Medicaid, the national program designed to insure poor people, because Kansas has long had one of the more restrictive programs in the country. At the time, working parents couldn’t earn more than 32 percent of the federal poverty level—or $5,859 a year for a family of three. Childless adults like RaDonna didn’t qualify no matter how little they took home.

But in March 2010, change was in the air. President Barack Obama had just signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which promised a massive nationwide expansion of Medicaid. States were asked to open their programs to all adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or just about $27,000 a year for a family of three. In return, Washington would pay the full costs of new enrollees through 2016 and 90 percent from 2020 forward. It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of this change. It was arguably the largest expansion of an anti-poverty program since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, when Medicaid was created—and it could very well have saved RaDonna’s life.

But the pitched battle to bring Medicaid expansion to Kansas reveals much about how we arrived at today’s healthcare reality—one in which there is very much a red and a blue America. The difference between those two worlds is stark, perhaps nowhere more so than in Kansas.

Note: Montgomery County is the home of Independence; it’s where the Inge Festival is held.

Hey, America, It’s the Tonys!  — Michael Paulson at the New York Times on how the broadcast of tonight’s award show is meant to bring in the audience to the shows.

THE funeral home jingle is an upbeat crowd-pleaser in a show that more often prompts tears. Three winsome children, emerging from hiding in a coffin, pretend to record a TV spot for their family business, and the comic lyrics and antic dance moves invariably provoke rousing applause from the rapt audiences that are now packing into Circle in the Square Theater to see “Fun Home.”

So on the day Tony nominations were announced, when the awards show’s executive producers began calling the creators of Broadway musicals, they wanted to talk about including that song, “Come to the Fun Home,” on this Sunday’s broadcast.

But Team “Fun Home” — championing a show about a young lesbian whose father kills himself after acknowledging that he, too, is gay — was not interested.

The annual Tony Awards broadcast is, of course, about honoring the best of a theatrical season. But there is more than one way to win the night: For producers, the real battle is over wooing ticket-buyers, and the broadcast’s musical numbers are seen as the single most important way to do that.

On an evening sure to be dominated by medleys and mash-ups, the “Fun Home” creators proposed representing their show with an 11-year-old girl, standing alone at the center of Radio City Music Hall, singing “Ring of Keys,” an aching expression of identification and yearning to an unseen deliverywoman she has spotted at the threshold of a diner.

“We don’t have a big tap number, and we don’t have any pyrotechnics,” said Lisa Kron, the playwright who collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on the musical. “This is the song that most captures the essence of our show.”

“Fun Home” will be among 11 shows on the broadcast this year, including three not nominated for major awards and one that has been running for 10 years. The productions spend between $100,000 and $400,000 to rehearse and create sets for numbers that, generally in less than four minutes, strive to introduce the shows and persuade viewers to purchase seats.

Deciding what those songs will be, and when in the broadcast they will air, is the result of a largely unseen dance between CBS, the Tony Awards and the theatrical producers, who have overlapping but not identical interests as they try to make a television show that will attract and retain viewers and simultaneously bolster the billion-dollar business that is Broadway.

Doonesbury — Speaking of Kansas.