KUALA LUMPUR (July 19): Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) chairman Tun Daim Zainuddin is in China to try to renegotiate contracts entered into by the previous Barisan Nasional government with Chinese firms, said Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The Prime Minister said Daim has yet to report back to him on the outcome of his meetings with the Chinese companies.
"What he is trying to do is to try and renegotiate the loans (received from Chinese banks) and the contracts we have given to Chinese companies because we find that they are costly.
As the 2018 midterm election season heats up across the country, U.S. government officials say they’ve yet to see digital attacks by Russia on the scale of the 2016 presidential election–but cybersecurity experts warn that it’s too early to tell, noting that it’s still early in the election cycle.
“Right now, there are no indications that Russia is targeting the 2018 U.S. midterms at a scale or scope to match their activities in 2016,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the National Association of Secretaries of State on Saturday.
President Trump himself appeared at first to go even further, at first saying “no” in response to a reporter’s question Wednesday about whether Russia was still targeting U.S. elections and infrastructure, only for White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to later claim he was simply declining to answer the question. That came just a few days after an appearance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which saw Trump widely criticized for appearing to reject claims of Russian hacking altogether, though he would claim later in the week that he had misspoken.
And just a few days later, Microsoft vice president for customer security Tom Burt told the Aspen Security Forum that the election cycle hasn’t been completely devoid of Russian interference: the software company has worked with government officials to foil attacks on three candidates who “because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint, as well as an election disruption standpoint,” Quartz reports. The candidates were targeted with phishing attacks using domain names designed to imitate Microsoft sites. Still, Burt said, overall, “the consensus of the threat intelligence community right now is that we’re not seeing the same level of activity by the Russian activity groups” as in 2016.
Calm Before the Storm?
Cybersecurity experts contacted by Fast Company generally say they also haven’t seen evidence of 2016-style attacks by Russia–but, they caution, that’s no reason to assume such attacks won’t be launched later in the election cycle.
“We’re not seeing anything at this point that would contradict what Secretary Nielsen has said, though I would stress that I think it’s still early,” says Toni Gidwani, director of research operations at the security firm ThreatConnect. “I don’t take, at this point, the absence of these indicators as a sign that we can take a step back.”
That echoes statements made July 13 by Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, at an event at the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.
“As the Department of Homeland Security noted, we are not yet seeing the kind of electoral interference in specific states and voter databases that we experienced in 2016,” he said. “However, we fully realize that we are just one click of the keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself.”
It could be that international scrutiny, diplomatic considerations or relative lack of interest in a non-presidential election year mean Russian hackers will sit out this election. But it’s also possible they’re simply waiting for closer to Election Day to interfere with party and candidate systems, attempt to breach voter registration systems or unleash some other kind of attack on the election system.
“We would certainly expect them to not do the same thing they would do in 2016,” Gidwani says. “As brazen as this actor is, we absolutely expect to see the adversary learn.”
In fact, Russian hackers could already be at work on some sort of attack on electoral systems that hasn’t been detected yet, says Malcolm Harkins, chief security and trust officer at cybersecurity company Cylance. After all, hacks on Democratic National Committee machines in the 2016 cycle reportedly went largely undetected for months. Hackers could even have planted malicious code in some infrastructure hacked in 2016, designed to facilitate their re-entry this time around, Harkins says.
“It’s possible there is dormant capability there that was laid during the presidential cycle that could be turned on and activated when the threat actor wants,” he says.
Even if this year’s elections come and go with no serious attempts at tampering, experts say efforts to harden election systems should still continue. Those include keeping malware and phishing emails away from candidate and party servers to replacing outdated, potentially vulnerable voting machines should still continue.
“The takeaway from the 2016 election is still the same, and that’s that the threat to our electoral processes is real and not theoretical,” says Marian K. Schneider, president of the nonprofit Verified Voting.
Nor is electronic political espionage, alive since at least the heyday of the telegraph, likely to fade away any time soon.
“Don’t count Russia out–we haven’t seen the last of political espionage,” says Theresa Payton, who served as White House CIO under President George W. Bush and is now CEO of the security consultancy Fortalice Solutions. “As it relates to nation states as well as cyber criminals, when we unveil their tactics and techniques and we make it harder for them to do, they rarely change their tune and say ‘Oh, I should stop what I’m doing and be a good person now.'”
When architecture students at Auburn University’s Rural Studio first started working on the 20K initiative in 2005, they had a straightforward–if ambitious–goal: to design a high-quality house for people living in rural Alabama that would provide local construction jobs and cost no more than $20,000 to build.
More than a decade later, after successive classes of students have relentlessly improved the design of the physical house, finding innovative construction techniques, for example, the project has changed course. “What we’ve learned, over the almost decade and a half that we’ve been working on this little project, is that the issues around housing affordability are not brick and mortar problems,” says Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio.
[Photo: Timothy Hursley/courtesy Auburn University]Instead, making a single-family home affordable is a classic wicked problem, with tentacles that reach into all aspects of the economy. The team found issues with credit and credit education. There were issues in the mortgage market. There were problems with permitting and zoning, and the process of hiring and using a contractor. There were also all of the secondary costs that come after purchasing a house, from insurance costs and maintenance to energy use.
Read more: This House Costs Just $20,000—But It’s Nicer Than Yours
“There’s this huge network of parts that are not particularly integrated with each other,” says Smith. “They’re all in the domains of different areas of interest and expertise, and none of them kind of connect together. That disconnection is one of the many ways that really contributes to the complexity of what homeownership costs.”
Architecture students continue to work on perfecting a design for the house that has the highest possible performance–using materials ultra-efficiently, for example, and making the house stronger than the building code requires–at the lowest possible cost. But that cost will almost certainly exceed $20,000; the first house allotted for $12,000 for materials and $8,000 for construction, but the original materials used would now cost more than $25,000 and continue to rise because of economic factors. “As a point of reference, with a single tweet [from President Trump] about trade wars, the average cost of the material of the house in the United States went up six percent,” says Smith.
[Photo: AU Rural Studio]
But as the architectural work continues, the program has now partnered with a set of other organizations to “take a holistic approach to tackle the systemic issues that face housing affordability in the country,” he says. Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage lender, is now collaborating with the program as a way to help address the nationwide shortage of affordable housing. (Under its “Duty to Serve” plan, Fannie Mae needs to increase mortgage capacity in underserved areas–and it realized that it needs to increase the supply of affordable housing to do that.) The 20K Initiative is also talking with banks that offer home loans, the USDA, which provides housing assistance in rural America, nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, a home insurance organization, the Department of Energy, and others.
[Photo: Timothy Hursley/courtesy Auburn University]
Connecting each of these players can lead to more affordable housing, Smith believes. If the house is efficient enough to save someone $25 a month on energy bills, for example, and the bank offering a home loan knew that, it could bring a house within reach of someone living in poverty. “In a conventional mortgage product, for every dollar you can increase your monthly mortgage payment, you can buy about $200 of additional construction that you otherwise couldn’t afford,” says Smith. “So suddenly that $25 that doesn’t seem like much just became $5,000 of added construction cost that you can finance at no additional cost to you . . . The problem is, is that the primary lender has no way to know that.” By connecting various organizations involved in housing, these types of savings can emerge.
The partners will spend the next three years piloting new programs that can drive the cost of housing down, and some of the partners–from Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits to contractors who want to sell the houses–will work on bringing them to market. “That third year the goal is to be able to sort of turn it loose to whoever wants it and whoever needs it and whoever can afford it,” he says. Notably, Rural Studio said in 2016 that it hoped to provide the plans for the houses as soon as possible, for free. But it now believes that it needs to provide a fuller set of solutions beyond just a blueprint to create a truly affordable home.
[Photo: AU Rural Studio]
Rural Studio will continue to focus on housing for the rural poor in Alabama and a stretch of “persistently impoverished counties” in nearby states, where at least 20% of the population has been living in poverty for 30 years or more. But the program is also beginning to talk with others across the country who want to use the houses in other ways–for example, as accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, in urban backyards, or as tiny houses in tiny house villages. The house may change design by region or application, but Smith believes that the other services that are developed, by linking partners together, could be used nationally.
“We think about middle-class Americans having problems living in the Bay Area or in Seattle or Portland or New York or Chicago or Miami, but it is a Boise, Idaho problem,” he says. “It’s an everywhere in America problem. The fact that teachers and firefighters and police officers–all the people that work in your community and that you want to live in your community–can’t afford to. They all live an hour or more away. There’s this larger workforce housing problem, and if we can actually develop this sort of systemic approach to tackling affordability, it’s not just targeted at the poorest of the poor, in our minds, it will be this fantastic sort of trickle-up kind of project. It could change affordability for all of us.”