Computer security experts say that a video released by former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson appears to show her computer “malfunction[ing],” likely due to a stuck backspace key, not being hacked by government agents as she had suggested.
In her new book Stonewalled, Attkisson claims that her personal Apple laptop, personal Apple desktop, and a CBS News-issued Toshiba laptop were hacked in late 2012 while she was reporting on the Benghazi terrorist attacks. In June 2013, CBS News confirmed that the CBS News computer was breached, using what the network said were “sophisticated” methods. According to the book, unnamed sources confirmed for Attkisson that an unnamed government agency was behind the attack. She also claims that she has submitted her personal Apple desktop to the Department of Justice's Inspector General for additional review.*
On October 31, Politico reported that Attkisson had released “a video she took with her cellphone of one apparent hack” of her personal Apple laptop. The video shows words typed into a Microsoft Word document rapidly disappearing. During the video, Attkisson's voice can be heard saying she's “not touching it,” as the camera pans down to the keyboard. As Politico reported, “There is no way to confirm from the video alone that a hack is actually taking place, and there's reason to doubt that Attkisson was hacked at all,” but “Attkisson's decision to release the video suggests she plans on using it to make her case.”
Computer security experts who reviewed the video suggested to Media Matters that it seemed to show the results of a stuck backspace key rather than hacking, and said the government and other sophisticated hacking enterprises were unlikely to use such methods.
Matthew Brothers-McGrew, a senior specialist at Interhack Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, said that sometimes computers “malfunction, a key can get stuck, sometimes dirt can get under a keyboard and a key will inadvertently be held down.” He explained that sometimes there can be software issues “where the computer will think a key is held down in fact it is not,” and said that his firm tested holding down the backspace key on a computer in their offices, and found “if you have Word open it will continually backspace text at about the same rate we are seeing in the video.”
Brad Moore, also a senior specialist at Interhack Corp., agreed, noting, “From what we looked at and what we were able to replicate, from that piece of video we don't see what we would call evidence of hacking. There are multiple explanations and we were able to demonstrate quickly and easily one possibil[ity], the backspace key.”
Peter Theobald, computer forensics investigator with TC Forensics in Syosset N.Y., said that while he would not be “terribly surprised to find out that someone in the government could or would hack her,” he also did not think the video proved “anything.”
“If a hacker were to infiltrate her laptop and delete her files there would be better ways to do it, it wouldn't be so obvious to her,” Theobald said. “It did not look like a hacker attack to me.”
All of the experts agreed that hackers would more typically use other methods to delete documents from a computer.
“The way to do it wouldn't be to hold down the delete key,” explained Sam Plainfield, of Syntax Technical Computer Forensics in San Francisco, which is what he thinks appears to be happening in the video. Instead, “you wouldn't see a visual indicator that files are deleting, [they are] just gone.”
Brothers-McGrew noted “in our experience if you have the ability to be able to access and submit keystrokes on someone's computer, you generally have system level access where you can just delete or modify the file yourself. The user would not ordinarily see what is going on.”
He added, “If the government were in there they would most likely be doing it without making themselves known.”
Theobald concurred, saying that the government “would be able to access the files on her hard drive and manipulate and delete them without having to remote control her screen and keyboard while she is sitting at the keyboard.”
*The language in this post has been updated to clarify that Attkisson submitted her personal Apple desktop computer to the DOJ for review, not her personal laptop.