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The Moscow cyber-crime arrests and the Yahoo hack: was the same gang involved?

The naming of Dmitry Dokuchaev in both the Moscow cyber-arrests and the Yahoo suggests the US and Russia may unwittingly be on the track of the same criminal gang.

Alexander Mercouris

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Earlier this year reports appeared in the Russian media of a series of arrests of Russian FSB officers and cyber specialists, including one Ruslan Stoyanov, an employee of  Russia’s top cyber security company, the Kaspersky Lab.

Subsequently it became known that some of them at least had been charged with treason, in a case that supposedly involved the US, with Stoyanov supposedly charged with passing on Russian state secrets to Verigin, a US company.

Following the arrests numerous reports circulated speculating that these arrests were somehow connected to the hacking of John Podesta’s and the DNC’s computers.

Some sections of the Western media made claims – strongly denied by the Russians – that the individuals arrested were the ones who had carried out the hacking of John Podesta’s and the DNC’s computers.

Others, rather more plausibly, speculated that those arrested were some of the informers who had provided information to the US which was used by the US intelligence community to support its claims of Russian responsibility for the Podesta and DNC hacks.

The case of the arrested FSB officers in Moscow has now taken an extraordinary new twist with the US Department of Justice bringing charges against a group of four Russian cyber criminals, who according to the the Department of Justice’s report, are being charged with

…..the 2014 hack into the network of email provider Yahoo, the theft of information about at least 500 million Yahoo accounts and the use of that information to obtain the contents of accounts at Yahoo and other email providers.

What makes the Yahoo case interesting is that the Department of Justice is saying that two of the individuals who have been charged are FSB officers.  The Department of Justice identifies them as follows

The defendants include two officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), an intelligence and law enforcement agency of the Russian Federation and two criminal hackers with whom they conspired to accomplish these intrusions.

Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, both FSB officers, protected, directed, facilitated and paid criminal hackers to collect information through computer intrusions in the United States and elsewhere.

They worked with co-conspirators Alexsey Belan and Karim Baratov to hack into computers of American companies providing email and internet-related services, to maintain unauthorized access to those computers and to steal information, including information about individual users and the private contents of their accounts.

The defendants targeted Yahoo accounts of Russian and U.S. government officials, including cyber security, diplomatic and military personnel. They also targeted Russian journalists; numerous employees of other providers whose networks the conspirators sought to exploit; and employees of financial services and other commercial entities.

(bold italics added)

Dmitry Dokuchaev, one of the FSB officers being charged by the US Justice Department in connection with the Yahoo hack, appears to be the same Dmitry Dokuchaev who has been arrested in Moscow in the treason case, and who The London Times has described – obviously on the basis of information obtained from British intelligence sources – as “a cyber-spy and former hacker”.

The fact that the same man  – Dmitry Dokuchaev – has been charged simultaneously in both cases, the one in Washington and the one in Moscow, makes it at least possible that the two cases – the Yahoo case in Washington and the treason case in Moscow – are in some way connected, and may involve the same group of cyber-criminals.

Importantly, the Department of Justice’s and the FBI’s claims about Dokuchaev and Sushchin, the two FSB officers charged in the Yahoo case, do not necessarily point to them undertaking an intelligence operation on behalf of the Russian government.   Though the wording is not completely clear, it is not inconsistent with Dokuchaev and Sushchin running a rogue operation for the purpose of self-enrichment.  Here is what the Department of Justice report has to say about them

Belan’s notorious criminal conduct and a pending Interpol Red Notice did not stop the FSB officers who, instead of detaining him, used him to break into Yahoo’s networks.

Meanwhile, Belan used his relationship with the two FSB officers and his access to Yahoo to commit additional crimes to line his own pockets with money…..

For those not familiar with the FSB, it is an intelligence and law enforcement agency and a successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB. The FSB unit that the defendants worked for, the Center for Information Security, aka Center 18, is also the FBI’s point of contact in Moscow for cyber-crime matters.

The involvement and direction of FSB officers with law enforcement responsibilities makes this conduct that much more egregious. There are no free passes for foreign state-sponsored criminal behavior.

This appears to suggest that the Department of Justice believes that Dokuchaev and Sushchin recruited Belan to carry out illegal hacks of US companies on behalf of the FSB, and that Belan used the protection this afforded him to carry out more illegal hacks to enrich himself and them.

However it is equally or perhaps more likely that Dokuchaev and Sushchin were Belan’s accomplices in a series of crimes carried out on their own initiative.  It is after all hardly unusual for criminals to enlist the services of corrupt law enforcement officers to help them carry out their crimes.  Such a thing undoubtedly happens in Russia, just as it happens in most other places.

That Dokuchaev at least was a corrupt FSB officer involved in a rogue operation is strongly suggested by what the FBI itself says about him.  Here is the information the FBI has provided about his activities which appears in the Most Wanted Notice the FSB has issued about him.

Conspiring to Commit Computer Fraud and Abuse; Accessing a Computer Without Authorization for the Purpose of Commercial Advantage and Private Financial Gain; Damaging a Computer Through the Transmission of Code and Commands; Economic Espionage; Theft of Trade Secrets; Access Device Fraud; Aggravated Identity Theft; Wire Fraud

(bold italics added)

The words “purpose of commercial advantage and private financial gain” point clearly to a rogue criminal operation rather than an official state-sponsored one.

That the FBI’s knowledge of the case still has gaps is strongly suggested by what the FBI has to say about Dokuchaev’s alleged accomplice Igor Sushchin in its Most Wanted Notice about him

Sushchin has Russian citizenship and is known to hold a Russian passport.  Sushchin is alleged to be a Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Officer of unknown rank.  In addition to working for the FSB, he is alleged to have served as Head of Information Security for a Russian company, providing information about employees of that company to the FSB.  He was last known to be in Moscow, Russia.

 (bold italics added)

These comments about Sushchin cast doubt on whether Sushchin really is an FSB officer.

The FBI says that Sushchin is simultaneously an officer of the FSB and the head of information security at a Russian company.  Moonlighting in the private sector was a common practice for FSB officers in the chaotic 1990s.  It is hardly conceivable today.

It seems more likely that Sushchin is the head of information security for a Russian company but that because of his relationship with Dokuchaev the FBI supposes him to be an FSB officer.  Its Most Wanted Notice about Sushchin shows that the FBI does not know for a fact that Sushchin actually is an FSB officer.  It merely guesses he is, and on the facts the FBI itself provides it is probably wrong.

To add to the uncertainty there is a question mark about Dokuchaev’s own role within the FSB.  According to reports in Russia, Dokuchaev is not a conventional FSB officer at all but is rather a notorious former hacker and cyber-criminal who was blackmailed by the FSB into working for them.  Here is what the Moscow based Moscow Times has to say about him

Major Dmitry Dokuchaev, one of four cyber-security experts arrested by the Kremlin on charges of treason, has allegedly been revealed as an infamous Russian hacker.

Dokuchaev worked as a hacker under the alias “Forb” until Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) threatened to jail him, an unverified source told the RBC newspaper.

“Forb” gave a interview to Russian newspaper Vedomosti in 2004, revealing that he specialized in “hacking on request” and stealing money from bank cards – an occupation which he said could earn him anywhere between $5,000 and $30,000 a month.

He also claimed that he had carried out a successful attack on U.S. government infrastructure.

The FSB ultimately traced Dokuchaev to the card thefts, and threatened to prosecute the hacker unless he agreed to work for the agency, the source alleged.

If what the Moscow Times article says is true (and the story looks well-sourced) then Dokuchaev’s criminal past makes it even more plausible that what he engaged in was a rogue criminal operation which was not officially sanctioned by the FSB.

Recruiting a notorious cyber-criminal to track down other cyber-criminals is a strange idea, but hardly unique in the world of law-enforcement.  Possibly the FSB, lacking its own trained cyber-specialists as a result of the crisis of the 1990s, looked to people like Dokuchaev in order to fill its ranks quickly.  If so then this has now come back to bite it, with another FSB officer – Sergey Mikhailov, the deputy head of the FSB’s security information centre (the FSB department for which the US Justice Department says Dokuchaev worked), who may have been Dokuchaev’s superior and line manager – seemingly also implicated in Dokuchaev’s activities.

This is a tangled web.  However if what is known about the case in Moscow is put together with what is now known about the case in Washington, then it is at least possible that this is a case of two parallel investigations into the activities of the same gang.  Belan and Dokuchaev would presumably be the ringleaders, but it seems that Dokuchaev has succeeded in involving at least one other person (Mikhailov) within the FSB as well.

Supporting the theory that the treason case in Moscow and the Yahoo case in Washington are the products of two parallel investigations into the activities of the same gang, is a report carried by TASS of the comments of a lawyer familiar with the Moscow case.  The lawyer is reported to have said the following

No CIA is mentioned in the case. It is only the country that is mentioned. Yes, the talk is about America, not about the CIA

(bold italics added)

When I previously discussed this comment in an article written on 2nd February 2017, I assumed it referred to the passing of classified information to the US intelligence community, if not to the CIA itself.  I overlooked the fact that the lawyer’s comment contains no hint of this.  Instead the lawyer merely said that “the talk is about America”.   His words are equally consistent with data theft from the US as with information transfer to the US.

It is likely that both took place.  If the cases in Moscow and Washington involve the activities of the same gang of cyber-criminals, then it seems that they were equally happy to steal information from the US, and to steal information from Russia and sell it to the US.

That would explain the claim about the passing of classified information to Verigin, with which Stoyanov is charged, and which is presumably what lies behind the treason charges.

However in all cases the motive for the gang’s activities would have been the same – the classic criminal one: to make money.

As it happens the fact that the gang was targeting Russians as well as Americans is confirmed by the US Justice Department in its report

The defendants targeted Yahoo accounts of Russian and U.S. government officials, including cyber security, diplomatic and military personnel. They also targeted Russian journalists; numerous employees of other providers whose networks the conspirators sought to exploit; and employees of financial services and other commercial entities.

(bold italics added)

There is much that is murky about this affair.  Though the known facts do suggest that the arrests in Moscow and the charges in Washington concern the same gang or at least the same people, that is not yet absolutely certain, and it could be that Dokuchaev, who figures so prominently in both cases, spread his net wide and involved more than one gang in his activities.

If however the two cases do involve the same gang, then unfortunately it is all too clear from the information trickling out of both Washington and Moscow that the relevant law enforcement agencies of the US and Russia are not cooperating with each other and are completely uninformed and possibly even unaware of each other’s investigations.  If so then that is much to be regretted since it can only increase the possibility of the two investigations working against each other and at cross-purposes, as in fact actually seems to be the case.

At this point however a few points can be made with confidence.

Firstly, it is clear that the Moscow arrests have absolutely nothing to do with the hacking of the computers of John Podesta and the DNC.  The case in Moscow is a criminal investigation into the activities of a gang of cyber-criminals, who practised criminal activity for financial gain.  They may be and probably are the same gang the US Justice Department and the FBI say is behind the Yahoo hack.  Regardless all the stories claiming that the Moscow case is somehow connected to the DNC and Podesta leaks are wrong.

Secondly, the claims in the Russian media that the arrests in Moscow had something to do with the Shaltay Boltai hacking group are also clearly wrong.  In that case the confusion is understandable.  It seems there is a wholly separate investigation into the Shaltay Boltai group going on as well.  Unsurprisingly some journalists in Moscow have confused the two, failing to realise that they are two wholly distinct investigations into two different groups of people.

Thirdly, if the investigations in Washington and Moscow are indeed parallel investigations into the activities of the same gang, then this shows the huge damage which has been done by the severing of contacts between the US and Russian law enforcement agencies carried out by the Obama administration.

Instead of information being pooled in order to track down and prosecute the same gang of cyber-criminals, two wholly separate and rival investigations are being conducted in two different countries which quite possibly involve the same gang.

The result is that neither investigation is being provided with all the facts.  Worse, the potential for conflict and misunderstanding between Washington and Moscow has been increased.   Both Washington and Moscow seem to be convinced that what looks to be one and the same gang was working for the intelligence agencies of the other side.  The result is that the US and Russia are blaming each other for the gang’s activities whilst protesting – correctly – their own innocence.

Perhaps one day, if Donald Trump finally comes through with his proposed detente with Russia, this sort of muddle and recrimination will be avoided.  If so then cooperation between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries would be a further important step in reducing misunderstandings and improving relations.

However until that happens the sort confusion, misunderstanding and exchange of blame and recriminations we are now seeing will continue unabated.

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Theresa May survives another week in ongoing Brexit fiasco (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 153.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s Brexit survival, as the UK Prime Ministers appears to be heading to Brussels so she can coordinate with EU technocrats in order to meet a November deadline to move the unpopular agreement through all channels of British government.

It is still a very fluid situation. May has made it through a tough weekend where support to oust her never materialized, but the week ahead is anything but certain. For now May’s Brexit position looks secure.

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“Brexit. A Deal That Pleases No One,” authored by Daniel Lacalle via dlacalle.com…

The agreement announced between the British government and the European Union has been received in the United Kingdom with criticism from all sides. The defenders of staying in the European Union consider it very negative, of course. However, and this is the most important part, it is unlikely that the conservative party itself will support this agreement in parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg has called the agreement “a failure of the negotiators and a failure to deliver Brexit.” Boris Johnson has said that it turns the United Kingdom into a “vassal state” and Nigel Farage has described it as “the worst agreement in history”.

Including the entire United Kingdom in the customs union and maintaining the payment of 10 billion pounds a year to give the European Union veto rights to the most important decisions is something that most conservative members of parliament will reject and that does not satisfy the Labor Party – which is also not pro-EU, let’s be clear – nor the liberal-democrats.

That is the great problem facing the government of Theresa May. That not even the government as a whole supports this agreement. The resignations that have been registered prove it. Even if the rest of the government decides to accept this agreement as a lesser evil, it is very difficult for the parliament to approve it.

At the centre of the controversy is a negotiating process that the European Union has left as a United Kingdom issue. But by letting the United Kingdom deal with its own divisions and problems, the EU also lost the perfect opportunity to offer British citizens and the rest of Europe a refreshing, leading and exciting project. And that is the big problem. That Brexit has been seen in many circles in Brussels as an opportunity to advance in the political and interventionist project, instead of moving towards a union in freedom for global, economic and political leadership.

The problem of the UK government is that it is led by a person, Theresa May, who must present a proposal to leave the EU when she has always been an advocate of remaining (Theresa May initially campaigned for the “Remain”). Thus, it is not surprising that the parliament arithmetics in favor of this agreement is not at all clear.

The British Parliament has more members in favor of Brexit than against, but it cannot be THIS Brexit.

Boris Johnson and the pro-Brexit hardliners may see an opportunity to weaken Theresa May and force a change of leadership that will bring a new leader more committed to a better deal.

Moderate Labour, who have been terrified for months with the radical drift of the Corbyn team, may also see an opportunity to weaken the leader who tries to take Labour to the far left.

My perception is that if there were a second referendum the result would probably be the same. In the United Kingdom there are no voices with political weight and real popular support to defend the European Union project. In the United Kingdom, the debate is either seeing the European Union as an annoying partner or as an impossible danger to solve.

Citizens in Europe see Brexit with sadness, logically. In the United Kingdom, news arriving from the European Union do not encourage a remain stance. High unemployment, unresolved immigration problems, lack of global leadership, high taxes, the specter of a new debt crisis in Italy and other risks. Pro-Europe UK leaders offer no other argument to citizens than the so-called Project Fear, a massive economic risk. However, British citizens see UK unemployment at 75-year lows, while in Europe they see the slowdown of the eurozone and the budget crisis of other countries, and do not find an unquestionable reason to stay in the club.

The UK citizen who votes for Brexit does not seem convinced that the only solution is to belong to a union that demands more control but offers less growth and employment.

The reactions to the agreement have not been very euphoric in any case. It seems something that was presented to fail. The pound and stock market did not react as the EU negotiators would think once the deal was seen as unlikely to pass parliament. In the bond market, Gilts strengthened as UK bond spreads fell while eurozone peripheral yields soared. The opposite of what would be seen as an EU victory.

Reaching an agreement that benefits everyone is difficult, but not impossible

The problem in the United Kingdom is that the agreement that would satisfy the pro-Brexit is impossible, and that the agreement that would please the pro-EU is impractical. That the message of economic ruin is not bought by Brexiters and not even the Remainers see the marvels of the EU membership.

Economically, it has been a mistake to present British citizens with the idea of “either the EU or the chaos”, because it does not work when there is not a clear, exciting and global leadership project.

The United Kingdom, one of the voices that defended economic freedom and open markets in an increasingly bureaucratic European Union is an essential partner to advance in Europe. Reaching an agreement that benefits everyone is difficult, but not impossible.

I have never bought the “EU or chaos” argument. I believe that both parts can benefit from a mutually beneficial deal. I am convinced that, even if this agreement is not approved, the British government will reconsider and present a solid plan for its citizens.

 

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Rise of the Western Dissidents

The only reason Assange is being targeted is that he tangled with the highest levels of the western establishment. He is far from alone.

The Duran

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Authored by Allum Bokhari via Breitbart:


We’re used to Russian dissidents, Chinese dissidents, Iranian dissidents, and Saudi Arabian dissidents. But those who rightly believe the west is superior to authoritarian regimes must now contend with a troubling trend — the rise of the western dissident.

Chief among them is Julian Assange, who for a half-decade has been forced to live in the tiny Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has claimed political asylum since 2011. Assange claimed that he would be extradited to the U.S. to face charges over his work at WikiLeaks if he left the embassy, and was routinely mocked as paranoid for doing so.

This week, we learned that Assange was right and his critics were wrong. Thanks to a clerical error by the U.S. attorney’s office in Alexandria, Virginia, reporters were able to confirm the existence of sealed criminal charges against the WikiLeaks founder.

Because the charges are sealed and the evidence is unknown, it’s impossible to say if the case has merit. But it likely relates to WikiLeaks’ release of unredacted diplomatic cables in 2011, which forced the U.S. to relocate several of its foreign sources.

Some allegations are more serious. While he was alive, neoconservative Senator John McCain maintained that leaks provided to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning, which included the diplomatic cables, caused U.S sources to be murdered.

Those who see Assange as a villain will end the story here. What is typically left out is that WikiLeaks originally released the diplomatic cables in piecemeal form, with names redacted to prevent loss of life and minimize harm.

It was only after a Guardian journalist’s error led to the full unredacted cables leaking to third parties on the web that WikiLeaks published them as well — and not before Assange attempted to warn the office of Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State.

In other words, WikiLeaks behaved precisely as any responsible publisher handling sensitive material should, redacting information that could cause harm. The redactions only stopped when they became pointless. Assange is unlikely to have won more than a dozen journalism awards if he were completely reckless in his publications.

The Pentagon later admitted under oath that they could not find any instances of individuals being killed as a result of being named in Manning’s leaks to WikiLeaks, contradicting Sen. McCain’s allegations.

At worst, Assange and WikiLeaks can be accused of negligence, not deliberate recklessness, in the way it handled sensitive material. But as Breitbart Tech reporter Lucas Nolan points out, a far stronger case can be made against Hillary Clinton for the way she handled State Department emails — yet we see no criminal charges against her.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the only reason Assange is being targeted is that he tangled with the highest levels of the western establishment. In that, he is far from alone.

In the late 2000s to early 2010s, western governments targeted all manner of individuals associated with Assange and the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, including Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, and The Guardian newspaper.

This was the early growth period of the internet, when the web had become a truly popular medium but had yet to be censored by pliant social media corporations. It was a time of profound unease at the power of the internet to undermine authority, both through the dissemination of information as in the case of WikiLeaks and Snowden, and in the new mobilization of political forces, as in the case of Occupy Wall Street and the SOPA/PIPA protests. Heavy-handed crackdowns against individuals and groups that were seen, rightly or wrongly, as symbols of the web’s early anarchic tendencies, like Kim DotcomAaron SwartzAnonymous, and LulzSec, were not uncommon.

These days, however, a new class of western dissident has emerged — the populist dissident.

Populist Dissidents

Who would have thought that the highest court in Europe, home of the enlightenment, would uphold a case in which a woman was prosecuted for blasphemy against Islam?

Who would have thought that Britain, the birthplace of liberalism and the free press, would ban an independent journalist from its shores for satirizing the same religion?

Who would have thought that Germany, whose living memory of the totalitarian Stasi is just three decades old, would put its largest opposition party under surveillance?

Just a few years ago, all three would sound far-fetched. But cases like these have become common as elites in virtually every western country mount a panicked attempt to contain the rise of populism (the goal, in the words of a Google executive, is to render it a “hiccup”in history’s march towards progress).

Look at the case of Tommy Robinson, the British critic of Islam who was dragged through Britain’s courts on fuzzy contempt-of-court charges. Sentenced to an astonishing thirteen-month imprisonment, Robinson was eventually freed after a successful appeal and now awaits a final trial before Britain’s Attorney General. Shaky charges that have been successfully appealed were exploited to persecute a British citizen who was inconvenient to the establishment. And there’s still a further trial to come.

Then again, Britain is a country that routinely bans foreign politicians and media figures from the country for being too right-wing. Michael SavageGeert WildersLauren SouthernPamela Geller, and Robert Spencer all enjoy this dubious distinction. Theresa May, who was responsible for internal affairs and immigration when Spencer and Geller were banned, is now the Prime Minister.

But it’s not just Britain. Not only has Trump’s White House, supposedly an ally of populists, failed to publicly intervene on behalf of the American citizens banned from the U.K. for expressing populist viewpoints, but it hasn’t even investigated allegations that far-left Antifa activists were able to stop conservative Rebel Media personality Jack Buckbyfrom entering the country by spreading false criminal allegations.

Julian Assange, a left-libertarian may share little ideological ground with right-wing critics of Islam. But they all share at least one thing: persecution by western states coupled with anti-establishment political speech or activities. They are also targets of the security establishment — Assange because of leaks that have exposed their secrets, and the populists because they refuse to censor themselves to avoid angering Muslims. (The UK justified its attempted ban of Geert Wilders by arguing that his presence in the country could lead to “inter-faith violence.”)

We also see attacks on free speech, with governments and politicians across the west pressuring Silicon Valley to suppress its critics. An unaccountable, unelected elite can sweep away a person’s livelihood in minutes, and cut their political message off from millions of American citizens. As I wrote in my column two weeks ago, the overarching trend is the gradual destruction or delegitimization of every tool, digital or otherwise, that non-elites use to express their preferences. Does that sound like a free society, or a controlled one?

You don’t have to agree with any of the individuals or groups listed above to see that surveilling political parties, blocking journalists from entering countries, jailing critics of religion, upholding blasphemy laws and censoring the net is the behavior of authoritarian nations, not liberal democracies. Yet this is the disturbing pattern we now see in the west.

Worse, foreign authoritarian regimes now provide safe harbor for western dissidents, in the same way that the west does for foreign dissidents. Edward Snowden, accused of violating the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917 for blowing the whistle on the NSA’s mass surveillance of Americans, has for years resided safely in Russia, a country that persecutes and even kills its own journalists. Before that, he sought refuge in Hong Kong, a “Special Administrative Region” of the People’s Republic of China, an even more terrifyingly totalitarian state.

Will there now be a quid pro quo, with Russia and other authoritarian regimes protecting our dissidents while the west protects theirs? Or will western countries remain true to their liberal traditions, and stop its alarming attempts to surveil, suppress, and persecute a growing number of its own citizens? On present trends, a dark and dystopian future seems to loom on the horizon.

Allum Bokhari is the senior technology correspondent at Breitbart News. You can follow him on TwitterGab.ai and add him on Facebook. Email tips and suggestions to [email protected].

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Zuckerberg’s “War Face” Has Driven Key Executives Away, Stoked Tension With Sandberg

About a dozen senior or highly visible executives disclosed their resignations or left Facebook in 2018.

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Via Zerohedge


Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gathered around 50 of his key executives and told them that the company was at war – more specifically, under siege from lawmakers, investors and angry users over the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal and Russian influence on the platform.

Zuckerberg, according to the Wall Street Journal, told his top lieutenants during that June meeting that while executives can move more slowly and methodically on key decisions during “peacetime,” he would be acting more decisively going forward, said people familiar with the remarks.

The result? Tension which has boiled over to the point where several key executives have left the country – as well as friction between Zuckerberg and longtime COO, Sheryl Sandberg.

The 34-year-old CEO believes Facebook didn’t move quickly enough at key moments this year and increasingly is pressing senior executives to “make progress faster” on resolving problems such as slowing user growth and securing the platform, said people familiar with the matter. Mr. Zuckerberg also at times has expressed frustration at how the company managed the waves of criticism it faced this year.

On Friday, that tension was on display when, during a question-and-answer session with employees at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., he blasted a fresh round of critical news coverage as “bullshit,” according to the people familiar with the remarks. –WSJ

One Facebook employee at the Friday session asked if the company could mitigate leaks by publishing internal reports on how frequently offenders are found and fired. While Zuckerberg said that Facebook does fire leakers, the root cause is “bad morale” thanks to negative press coverage.

And while the WSJ notes Zuckerberg has taken on ambitious annual goals, such as learning Mandarin and reading 25 books, this year his biggest challenge is fixing Facebook through his tougher management style, according to a person familiar with his thinking (so says the WSJ). Perhaps the Facebook CEO hired a drill sergeant to coach him on bringing out his inner-Alpha?

According to the Journal, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have had confrontations over his new management style, after she had long been afforded considerable autonomy over the company’s teams which handle communications and policy.

This spring, Mr. Zuckerberg told Ms. Sandberg, 49, that he blamed her and her teams for the public fallout over Cambridge Analytica, the research firm that inappropriately accessed private data on Facebook users and used it for political research, according to people familiar with the exchange.

Ms. Sandberg later confided in friends that the exchange rattled her, and she wondered if she should be worried about her job.

Mr. Zuckerberg also has told Ms. Sandberg she should have been more aggressive in allocating resources to review troublesome content on the site, said one person familiar with the matter, a problem that the company still struggles to fix. –WSJ

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg seems to be pleased of late with internal improvements, telling reporters last week that Sandberg is a “very important partner to me, and continues to be, and will continue to be.”

Privately, Zuckerberg has told executives that some of the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal was just “hysteria,” to which Facebook simply didn’t mount an effective response.

Clash of the tech titans

Zuckerberg famously has butted heads with the co-founders of photo-sharing app Instagram, over his desire to share user location data on the main Facebook platform in order to help better target ads. The now-resigned Instagram founders strongly opposed the idea, and abruptly left the company in September.

The founders of WhatsApp similarly bailed on Facebook after disagreements over how to best extract revenue from the messaging service, according to people familiar with the matter.

And most recently, was the departure of Oculus VR co-founder Brendan Iribe, who was forced out by Zuckerberg in part due to a disagreement over the future of the virtual-reality handset, the people said. The decision to leave was reportedly “mutual.”

All told, about a dozen senior or highly visible executives disclosed their resignations or left Facebook in 2018. In May, Facebook announced a major reshuffling of top product executives in a way that helped free up Mr. Zuckerberg to oversee a broader portfolio within the company.

This turmoil at the top of Facebook has made it difficult for the company to execute on some product decisions and shore up employee morale, which has been sinking over the last year along with the stock price, which has fallen 36% since its peak. Many employees are frustrated by the bad press and constant reorganizations, including of the security team, which can disrupt their work, according to current and former employees. –WSJ

Doing whatever it takes

Facebook has come under fire recently – most notably after a New York Times report that the company used GOP operatives to smear the company’s detractors and promote negative news about competitors Google and Apple.

When the Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal broke – the resultant rebukes from Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google executives sent Zuckerberg ballistic. The Facebook CEO “later ordered his management team to use only Android phones —arguing that the operating system had far more users than Apple’s,” according to the Times.

Facebook then went on the offensive against the fellow tech giants.

On the advice of Joel Kaplan – a well-connected Republican friend, Bush administration official, and former Harvard classmate of Sandberg, Facebook began to go after Google and Apple.

Mr. Kaplan prevailed on Ms. Sandberg to promote Kevin Martin, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman and fellow Bush administration veteran, to lead the company’s American lobbying efforts. Facebook also expanded its work with Definers.

On a conservative news site called the NTK Network, dozens of articles blasted Google and Apple for unsavory business practices. One story called Mr. Cook hypocritical for chiding Facebook over privacy, noting that Apple also collects reams of data from users. Another played down the impact of the Russians’ use of Facebook.

The rash of news coverage was no accident: NTK is an affiliate of Definers, sharing offices and staff with the public relations firm in Arlington, Va. Many NTK Network stories are written by staff members at Definers or America Rising, the company’s political opposition-research arm, to attack their clients’ enemies. –NYT

Facebook has responded, initially saying they didn’t put out “fake news” against their competitors, and they had no idea what their marketing department was doing. On Friday, however, Sandberg said she took full responsibility for the actions of the communications team.

Facebook has tried to move forward following its various scandals; spearheading efforts to reign in data harvesting, and looking for someone to oversee its corporate, external and legal affairs.

Hopefully whoever is ultimately in charge of oversight won’t be scared away by Zuckerberg’s war face.

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