Lies, Damned Lies, and Olympic Journalism

Category: Security

Just before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, NBC aired a story claiming that all visitors toting smartphones or laptops to Sochi with would be 'immediately hacked' and exposed to an array of horrors. Turns out the story was fabricated, but why? Read on...

Will Evil Russian Hackers Steal Your Data?

One of the game-changing benefits of our Internet-connected world is that it’s much more difficult to get away with lying. Too many observers with too much expertise are available to catch and call you out on a lie. One would think that a foreign correspondent for a major television network would be well aware of this fact and avoid lying.

But apparently, Richard Engel of NBC News has been living under a rock for the past two decades; or maybe he and his cronies mistakenly believe the rest of us are stupid.

On February 4, 2014, NBC aired a story by Engel that warned the whole world to avoid bringing "electronic devices" to Russia, specifically to the Olympics in the town of Sochi. According to Engel, the moment one connects to the Internet in Russia, hackers will pounce and "help themselves" to your data, contacts, banking information and photos.

NBC Olympic Hacking Fraud

They’ll also listen in on every phone call you make and do Heaven knows what damage with what they hear. Brian Williams, the anchorman, closes out the segment with, "Richard Engel, in Sochi…," reinforcing the story’s message that Sochi is a dangerous place to be, from a cyber security standpoint.

Problem is, Engel wasn’t in Sochi; he was in Moscow, over a thousand miles from Sochi. It’s possible that the anchorman just made a slip of the tongue. But this wasn’t some amateurish rural network affiliate; it was NBC Nightly News, which can afford to hire seasoned professionals who rarely make bloopers. It seems more likely this "mistake" was a deliberate lie designed to cast aspersions upon Sochi and discourage people from going there. Why would Engel, Williams and NBC want to do that?

Revenge is one possibility. Journalists from all over the world have been complaining very publicly about poor accommodations in Sochi; and they are pretty appalling, or funny depending on whether you’re there or not: half-finished hotel rooms, non-functioning toilets, brown tap water, dogs running loose in the halllways, etc.

The point is that many Sochi journalists and their pals were piqued at the Russians, so it’s plausible that one or more of them decided to get even with a hatchet job on the perils of hacking in Russia. The only other explanation I can think of is sensationalism and desperation for a ratings boost. An organization like NBC News surely has the staff to do some basic technical fact checking. So the likelihood that this story was deliberately fabricated (for whatever reason) seems almost certain.

Peacocks and Poppycock

You would think that elite professional journalists would be above such shenanigans, but you’d be wrong. NBC is the same network that was caught in 1993 rigging a GM truck’s gas tank to explode in order to "prove" that GM trucks’ gas tanks were prone to explode. To get the gas tank to explode, NBC installed remotely-ignited model rocket engines in it!

Ironically, Engel was busted by the same security consultant who helped him set up this experiment: Kyle Wilhoit blogged the following after the Engel hatchet job aired:

"First, all the attacks required some kind of user interaction. Whether to execute ‘applications’ or to open a Microsoft Word document, all the attacks shown required user interaction in order to compromise the device."

It turns out that the security settings on Engel's Android phone were deliberately changed to permit downloads from sketchy third-party app stores, and that a malicious app was knowingly installed. As for the laptops, Engel admitted in another interview that he deliberately clicked on malicious popups and phishing emails to give an open door to the attackers.

"Second, these attacks could happen anywhere. They would not just happen in Moscow, nor did it require us to be in Moscow. Whether those attacks occur while you are sitting in a coffee shop in Berlin, or your home in Tokyo, these types of attacks can and do occur, on a worldwide scale."

The interesting point here wasn't that the hacks took place in Russia. The fact that NBC didn't mention was that Engel's device was compromised by virtue of visiting rogue Olympic-themed websites, which can be accessed by anyone, from anywhere in the world.

"Third, the infections occurred on newly unboxed hardware. Had basic security precautions such as updating the operating system or not opening emails from unrecognized sources been done, these attacks could have been prevented."

Bottom line: While all three devices looked like they had been compromised with no user interactions, that was just not the case. Incorrect impressions may have been formed due to the editing process; and all infections required plenty of risky behavior to succeed. Engel's laptop was deliberately left unpatched and unprotected. Further, he purposefully took actions to make it easy for his smartphone and laptop to be compromised.

There are plenty of dangers online, but there is nothing particularly dangerous about Russia or Sochi. To get hacked there, or anywhere, you simply have to work at being stupid and/or careless. To air a story that omits relevant information (i.e., no security software or patches on any machines, disabling built-in Android security, actively enabling downloads of malware) in order to imply otherwise is simply a lie.

Your thoughts on this story are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Lies, Damned Lies, and Olympic Journalism"

(See all 40 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Ralph Sproxon
20 Feb 2014

Wow, this article is really disheartening, because Richard Engel is one of my favorite reporters. As a reporter in theaters of war, he is unbelievably courageous. And I've always found his pieces to be intelligent and insightful. Richard, you screwed this one up big time.

Posted by:

20 Feb 2014


I learned long ago (yes,...even before the internet age) that journalism has become more about selling a newspaper, magazine or a TV network news program than it is about the truth. With this bit of wisdom in mind, I believe NOTHING that I see in print, read on the Internet or hear on radio or TV until I have verified it from several reliable sources. So I am not shocked to hear this about NBC (or any other news source for that matter.) Be assured that I will be confirming your story as well before passing it on. 'LESSON TO BE LEARNED,'...Believe NOTHING that is proclaimed by ANY single source, regardless (or in spite of) it's reputation. Personal and corporate agendas are afoot everywhere.

Posted by:

Dean Caldwell
20 Feb 2014

Bravo,Bob...thanks for your reporting!

Posted by:

20 Feb 2014

Speaking to the topic of truth in Journalism, let me share with you a personal experience here in the States.
I was (un)lucky enough to be in Harrisburg, PA when Three Mile Island happened. We were inside in a training class, and the local news on the radio said to stay inside and everything would be fine. After we had heard this more than a few times, the national news interrupted the local news and stated that the freeways were jammed as people fled the city. From inside the classroom we could look out at the freeway and see that was not the case, and that the national news was outright lying about the situation.
I haven't believed anything on TV or radio since without researching it.

Posted by:

Jay Jensen
20 Feb 2014

Another great job of background reporting. Keep up the good work, Bob

Posted by:

Morgan Fairlamb
20 Feb 2014

Good work Bob. Another reason could be because NBC wanted to depress or stop reporting over the Internet by people posting on Twitter or Facebook. NBC has lost viewers and they would be willing to mislead people to not using other sources and tune in to NBC.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

Thanks for the information, Bob. There were so many negative reports leading up to the opening of the Games that it sure began to sound like a hatchet job, for whatever reason - fear of those big, nasty former USSR types? News reporting is so biased it's a wonder they can still call it news - and everything has to be related with such over-the-top drama.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

Bob ... Doesn't surprise me, in the least! Main Stream Media has been fabricating the "truth", for decades. I don't watch the Local News, it is just as bad, even on the Local News.

What makes it so bad ... Not only is the Main Stream Media "lying" to us ... But, much of what is read on the Internet is fabricated, as well!!! So, where can you go, to check things out?

The Internet is basically, autonomous ... Though, many governments are trying to regulate the Internet. Now, with autonomy, comes a freedom, that allows many people, to say many, many things, that simply are not true and never were meant to be. What makes that action, so bad, is that too many people "believe" what they read and don't ever bother to research the facts, of truth or false!!!

As for the Main Stream Media, I included the 24 hour News Cable/Satellite Channels ... These people are responsible, for their actions and statements! There is NO "pass" for what their staff tells them, anymore than there is a "pass" for politicians, when their aides give them the wrong information. These news reporters have either a National or Local following, where if, they want to remain as a reporter ... Telling the truth is paramount!!! Or at least, make a statement of correction, up front, like the newspaper do/did.

I simply, don't trust the News Outlets and haven't for decades, like many have said, already. My distrust, started during the Vietnam Conflict, as it was called ... When, the Main Stream Media began to call our servicemen and women "mass murders"!!! I know, that war is violent and sometimes, soldiers do not do the right thing and need to be punished ... However, the Main Stream Media treated all soldiers with great distain, so that those who came home ... Came home in disgrace.

Didn't mean to be political ... Just wanted to explain, when I lost all faith in the Main Stream Media.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

After spending 24 years in major market broadcast TV, I can unequivocally say that journalism, real journalism, is dead. The people that are hired to actually do reporting, in whatever medium, have no command of English. Bob, you admonish us that "spelling, punctuation, grammar and proper use of UPPER/lower case are important!" before posting one of our replies; not so with internet and broadcast TV news sites. These are rife with spelling and grammar errors, not mention the blatant misuse of the apostrophe to signify possession. I read the "news" every day, but place no credence in the veracity of what has been written. It's very sad.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

I hope I don't get "Hacked" for saying this but . . . Whomever is Really MAD at Russia for harboring the fugitive, Mr. Snowden!
All of these scare tactics is pure & simple - - Revenge.
. . . that's all I got.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

Bob, I’m with you since the time of the Tour bus. And I am so very, very glad that there are still people in the States, people like you and our fellow “bus passengers” that keep their eyes peeled and don’t believe just about everything and just because they have seen it on CNN, CBS or NBC…
Thank you and respect!

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

It's just NBC being NBC. Not that the other networks are noticeably better.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

Another thing the news media really tried to put in a bad light was the Olympic Rings at the opening ceremony. So one ring had a malfunction and did not light up on cue. Big deal. But the new media showed this over and over and over like it was the only thing at the opening ceremony.
I also read about how the TV news shows such as 60 minutes are fed many stories by trial lawyers trying to get a favorable verdict for a client. They feed the info to the news mag show, and the bad publicity encourages the defendent company to seek a settlement.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2014

any "news" these days has been redacted for the average American mentality....which is far below average.

Posted by:

Mike in Colorado
23 Feb 2014

Thanks for this article, Bob. I stopped watching network news years ago. They try to sensationalize the news in order to drive ratings which then results in higher advertising rates. Accurately reporting the news isn't one of their functions anymore. The only things that matter are the bottom line and getting their liberal political candidates elected.

Posted by:

23 Feb 2014

I guess I'm too old to deal with today's anchorpeople. I remember when the news was just news. No commentary. No political lean. No made up stories just to get people to watch the TV. Yes, newspapers printed news with their slant, but not TV. Or was I too young to see the lies?

Posted by:

Lowell Smith
23 Feb 2014

I got rid of my television decades ago, for as George Gerber (rip) said, TV has little to tell but a whole lot to sell.

For anyone wanting to learn about the severe drawbacks of this medium, read Jerry Mander's classic "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," if you can still find a copy.

I get information from the Internet which also must be evaluated, and hope that this column sticks to informative articles about technology.

Posted by:

25 Feb 2014

All "reporters" start with a premise they want to promote and then edit the "facts" to fit that premise. Lacking facts that support their position, they make them up. This is not new with television. My college history professor told us that the first thing we should do when reading history is consider the source and the biases of that source. ALL sources/reporters have biases. Know them and evaluate their reports accordingly.

Good job, Bob!

Posted by:

25 Feb 2014


Posted by:

28 Mar 2014

Has anyone thought about wrapping all of this feedback up in a nice neat little package, and sending it off to Brian Williams and/or the producer of his program?
They did a good job of packaging this story for the general public.

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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Lies, Damned Lies, and Olympic Journalism (Posted: 20 Feb 2014)
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