False clues make it tough to find WADA hackers

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LONDON (AP) — Medical data from some of the world’s leading athletes has been posted to the web and the World Anti-Doping Agency says Russians are to blame. Even the hackers seem to agree, adopting the name “Fancy Bears” — a moniker long associated with the Kremlin’s electronic espionage operations.

But as cybersecurity experts pore over the hackers’ digital trail, they’re up against a familiar problem. The evidence has been packed with possible red herrings — including registry data pointing to France, Korean characters in the hackers’ code and a server based in California.

“Anybody can say they are anyone and it’s hard to disprove,” said Jeffrey Carr, the chief executive of consulting firm Taia Global and something of a professional skeptic when it comes to claims of state-backed hacking.

Many others in the cybersecurity industry see the WADA hack as a straightforward act of Russian revenge, but solid evidence is hard to find.

What’s known is that it was only days after scores of Russian athletes were banned from the Olympic Games that suspicious looking emails began circulating . Purporting to come from WADA itself, the booby trapped messages were aimed at harvesting passwords to a sensitive database of drug information about athletes worldwide. Among other things, the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System carries information about which top athletes use otherwise-banned substances for medical reasons — prize information for a spurned Olympic competitor seeking to embarrass its rivals.

On Sept. 1 someone registered a website titled “Fancy Bears’ Hack Team.” A few days later, a Twitter account materialized carrying a similar name. Just after midnight Moscow time on Sept. 13, the Fancy Bears Twitter account came alive, broadcasting the drugs being taken by gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams and other U.S. Olympians. It followed up Thursday with similar information about the medication used by British cyclists Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, among many others.

There is no suggestion any of the athletes broke any rules, but Russians seized on the leak as evidence that U.S. and British players were using forbidden drugs with the blessing of anti-doping officials.

“Hypocrisy” Russia’s embassy to London tweeted in reaction to the news. Kremlin channel RT broadcast a cartoon showing a WADA official picking up a bulky American player’s steroid bottle with a smile. “All good! You’re cleared to compete!” he says.

Citing law enforcement sources, WADA said the attacks “are originating out of Russia.” Russian officials dismissed the allegation; in an email, WADA said it wouldn’t be commenting further.

With little to go on, independent investigators have still made some intriguing connections.

Virginia-based intelligence firm ThreatConnect said that whoever compromised WADA did so using websites registered through an obscure domain name company that also set up the fake sites used in a variety of other hacks blamed on the Kremlin, including the one that hit the Democratic National Committee. In a telephone interview, the company’s chief intelligence officer, Rich Barger said he had been cautious at first about tying the WADA breach to Russian hackers but that “confidence is certainly growing as more and more people weigh in and lend their voice.”

Even the meaning of the name “Fancy Bears” is unclear. California-based threat intelligence firm CrowdStrike has long applied that nickname to an allegedly Russian state-backed group, but the hackers’ adoption isn’t necessarily a brazen acknowledgement of CrowdStrike’s research. It might be an attempt to hold it up to ridicule. Which interpretation the group favors hasn’t been made clear. Repeated messages to email addresses associated with Fancy Bears have gone unreturned.

Fancy Bears’ website doesn’t necessarily provide any more insight. Some its artistry appears to have been lifted from a Russian clip art page. But tech podcaster Vince Tocce also found Korean script in the site’s code — characters which vanished shortly after he made his discovery public. In a telephone interview, he said that showed how difficult it was to take anything for granted.

Some pieces of Fancy Bears’ infrastructure were almost certainly structured to sow confusion.

The site, for example, appears to be hosted in California but was registered at an address in the town of Pomponne, east of Paris, under the name “Jean Guillalime.”

A man residing at that address, Jean-Francois Guillaume, told The Associated Press the registry information was bogus and that he was mystified as to why the hackers had picked on him.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with this,” he said, adding that he ran a consulting shop and a flower business and wasn’t particularly interested in sports. “I don’t know any Russians.”

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French ice dancers win third world title; first medal for U.S. champs

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French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their third world title, one month after an Olympic silver medal, while U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue earned their first world medal, a silver in Milan on Saturday.

Papadakis and Cizeron captured their third world title in four years by breaking world records in the short and free dances. The pre-event favorites totaled 207.20 points and prevailed by 10.56 over Hubbell and Donohue. Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje grabbed bronze.

Papadakis and Cizeron’s score would have won the Olympics by 1.13 over Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who skipped worlds and may never compete again. Papadakis’ dress came undone in their short dance in South Korea, exposing her breast, though they were just .14 off their personal-best short dance score at the time.

Hubbell and Donohue became the fourth different American couple to earn an Olympic or world medal in five seasons. It’s been a breakout year for the newest stars in the U.S.’ deepest figure skating discipline.

They won their first national title in January after placing third or fourth the previous six years and were fourth at their first Olympics, giving up a potential bronze with Donohue’s fall in the free dance. Donohue also fell in the 2017 Worlds free dance after they were third in the short.

WORLDS: Full Scores | Recaps | TV Schedule

The world field lacked the Olympic gold and bronze medalists (Virtue and Moir and American siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani). Medalists often skip the post-Olympic world championships due to off-ice opportunities, exhaustion or retirement.

The second U.S. couple in Milan, two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, were fifth after placing ninth at the Olympics, where they tangled skates and both fell in the free dance.

The third U.S. couple, 2014 World junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, improved from 15th after the short dance to finish 10th overall in their senior worlds debut.

The U.S. put three couples in the top 10 at worlds for the seventh time in eight seasons.

The 2018-19 figure skating season starts in earnest in October with Skate America in Everett, Wash.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang

Nathan Chen wins world title by nearly 50 points after everyone falls


Nathan Chen has the gold. It just came one month later than he had hoped (and against a much less impressive field).

The 18-year-old won the world championships on Saturday, becoming the first U.S. male singles skater to do so since Evan Lysacek in 2009 and the youngest man from any nation since Yevgeny Plushenko in 2001.

It came one month after Chen entered the Olympics as one of the favorites and finished fifth.

“I felt the pressure, but I used what I learned from the Olympics and tried to bring it here,” Chen said, adding that he wouldn’t trade this title for an Olympic gold.

Chen landed six quadruple jumps in his free skate (five clean), extending a 1.86-point lead from the short program to win by 47.63 points. Chen tallied personal-best free skate and total scores (219.46, 321.40), becoming the second man to break 320 total points after double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

It’s the largest margin of victory in any event at an Olympics, worlds or Grand Prix Final under the 14-year-old points system.

Every other medal contender fell multiple times in the free skate. Chen, going last, said he was aware of that. Yet he still went all-out with six quads rather than the five he planned before going to Milan.

“That [the skaters’ falls] actually helped solidify my approach for six quads because it gave me an opportunity to make a mistake,” Chen said.

Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno from Japan took silver despite three falls Saturday, reportedly skating through an ankle injury. Russian Mikhail Kolyada held on for bronze with two falls.

“I was not able to show my best,” Uno said, “but I did not give up until the end.”

American Vincent Zhou, third in the short program, also had three falls and ended up 14th. Jin Boyang, fourth in the short, fell five times and was 19th.

“I can’t even begin to describe how angry I am at myself for letting such an important FS [free skate] get away from me,” was tweeted from Zhou’s account, adding that he injured his back before leaving for Milan. “I’ve trained clean longs with 5 & 6 quads and I am so capable of being among the best.”

WORLDS: Full Scores | Recaps | TV Schedule

Chen ended a season with six wins in seven events. That loss was costly, a fifth-place finish at the Olympics with that disastrous 17th-place short program.

But Chen rebounded not only in the Olympic free skate (highest score by nearly nine points) but also in Milan this week. Chen said he learned from PyeongChang to stop being “hell-bent” focused on gold.

His chances were no doubt boosted this week by the absences of Olympic gold and bronze medalists Hanyu and Javier Fernandez. Many medalists skip the worlds that are held one month after the Olympics due to exhaustion, off-ice opportunities or retirement.

This field lacked any prior Olympic or world champions for the first time since 1985.

Chen said before worlds he plans to continue competing next season, even though he may enroll in college. He will still work under Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutyunyan.

The third American, Max Aaron, finished 11th, landing one quad in his free skate, putting his hand down on a quad Salchow. Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, reportedly said it may have been his final competition.

Worlds conclude later Saturday with the free dance.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang