May 30, 2018

Flagpole's Campaign Coverage Hacked

Pub Notes

A minor footnote to the just-concluded local elections occurred Thursday morning, May 17, and involved the political-roundup edition of Flagpole—our last issue before the election.

The calls began immediately Thursday morning from angry candidates, accusing us of deleting stories about them. Plus, a fellow who had written a controversial letter to the editor emailed to tell us how he was so disappointed that we would knuckle under to political pressure and censor his carefully wrought words.


Meanwhile, we were all WTF? The Flagpole website was not only down, it was practically non-existent, except for the ads. Moreover, our access to our own site was blocked, meaning that not only was our website down, we couldn’t get into it to put the election issue back online. Even if we were going to censor candidates and letter-writers, we wouldn’t blow up our entire website to do it and then block our own access.

But the main thing at this point was to figure out what had happened, to repair the damage and get Flagpole back online. For that, we turned to our longtime IT guy, Jeff Deroshia, who designed the site in the first place.

Jeff pretty quickly got Flagpole back up and running online. In the process, he was able to determine the intruder’s IP address and piece together a little homegrown drama that illustrates how even a local newspaper is not immune to the kind of hacking that presently roils the international political scene.

In Jeff’s words: “The intruder spent some time looking through the admin sections, as if they were familiarizing themselves with the back end… The user changed the password to Blake’s account at 8:53 am, then changed the password for [our former administrator’s] account before logging out at 9:06 am.

“That IP address accessed the site once more that evening at 9:55 p.m. to view this article: ‘In the Loop: Mayoral Forum Focuses on the Eastside.’ During that 13-hour timespan, there were a few additional logins from a mix of Verizon hotspots (one in Chicago, one in Lawrenceville) as well as several Tor nodes located in Russia, Latvia, South Africa, Netherlands, Senegal, Germany, et. al.

“I believe these were the same user, since there was no overlap, and once in the Tor network, page requests made from one Tor IP would continue with another Tor IP before they completed. The intruder seemed interested in Blake’s articles, and multiple times during the intrusion they accessed ‘Mayor: Kelly Girtz, Richie Knight, Harry Sims,’ ‘Prosecutor Isn't Fit to Be Judge,’ by Russel Gabriel, and ‘CCSD Names New Principals at Cedar Shoals, Clarke Central, Chase Street, Stroud and JJ Harris.’

“It was just before midnight when the intruder started changing everyone’s passwords. “They also changed the admin email address in the settings…

“They then deleted this week’s issue at 12:25 a.m. yesterday morning and deleted all the articles for it at 12:28 a.m.”

A minor incident, perhaps, but it’s the same thing as if somebody had gone around town, picked up all the newsstand issues of Flagpole and thrown them into the North Oconee River—except that Jeff wouldn’t have been able to fish them all out.

We have turned this incident over for the police to investigate. We take it seriously as an attack on our newspaper and through Flagpole an attack on our town, at a time when our citizens needed information about the elections.

This incident is a reminder that someone who has the motive and the skills but not the scruples can singlehandedly abrogate freedom of the press and staunch the flow of information vital to citizens participating in the political process.

It’s also a reminder that with everything technology has done for and to the news business, there’s still a lot to be said for the stubbornly tactile pleasure of holding the news in your own (inkstained) hands and turning the pages yourself, while feasting your eyes and your mind. All those Flagpoles floating around Athens every week are the ultimate redundancy—proof against Russian bots and homegrown saboteurs alike.