NBC blasted for misleading (or worse) account of phone, PC hacking in Sochi

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We’ve all heard the horror stories out of the Sochi Olympics — the lack of pillows, the disappearing dogs. But one report (embedded below) by NBC News correspondent Richard Engel about how smartphone users in Russia get hacked merely by turning their phones on, has been blasted for inaccuracy — and worse.

Most of the nervous-making assertions by NBC could happen anywhere, including at your local Starbucks, said Gartner analyst Paul Procter in a blog post:

 “To quote Brian Williams introducing the story: ‘If travelers to Sochi fire up their phones at baggage claim, it’s probably too late to save the integrity of their electronics and everything inside them. Visitors to Russia can expect to get hacked. It is not a matter of if, but when.’ This is an overstatement and misleading.”

In Procter’s view, the most misleading part of Engel’s report is that none of what happened to the new MacBook Air (sigh) and smartphone used for his experiment required the user or the bad guys to be in Russia at all. Far from the hackers targeting his devices, he invited them in by clicking on questionable links — something any halfway accomplished PC user would not do.

Meanwhile, cybersecurity expert Robert Graham of ErrataSec proclaimed the program “100 percent fraudulent”, saying the “hack” happened because of the Olympic-themed websites visited, not their location.

A friend working in the video trailers in Sochi said the NBC report is a huge topic of conversation there — and not in a good way.

“They sacrificed two new laptops and a smartphone to demonstrate how quickly hackers will seize your devices here. It was complete sensationalism. They steered the computers to known honeypots and pretty much invited the hackers onboard. I only know of one person who had any trouble. Her AOL Mail account was hacked after arriving here. My response: AOL? Who still uses AOL? Was your password PASSWORD? WTF?”

I’ve reached out to NBC News for a comment and will update as needed. Update: Business Insider ran NBC’s response to the uproar here. The gist is that the network wanted to demonstrate that a user is “more likely to be targeted by hackers while conducting a search in Russia and that such attacks happen with alarming speed … The story was meant to show how easily a non-expert could be victimized

The NBC report can be viewed here:

Note: This story was updated at 7:00 a.m. PDT with NBC’s response.

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