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Security certificate yanked from Russia-backed website, hurting ability to divide voters

Alexander Malkevich, the chief of a Kremlin-backed website aimed at U.S. audiences, stands outside Grand Central Station in New York on June 16, 2018. (Tim Johnson/McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS)
January 06, 2019

A Russian-funded English-language website aimed at sowing divisions among Americans has had a vital internet security certificate yanked, meaning U.S. internet users will have difficulty accessing the site.

The executive director of a California-based nonprofit group that issues security certificates told McClatchy Wednesday that the group had revoked certificates for USAReally.com, a website that was set up by a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The action means users can no longer visit the website employing the Mozilla Firefox browser, and will soon get warnings that the site is insecure on browsers such as Apple-developed Safari and Google’s Chrome.

“We have revoked all outstanding certificates for that site and banned it from getting certificates from us in the future,” the executive director of the Internet Security Research Group, Josh Aas, said in an email.

The revocation comes two weeks after the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on the founder and editor of USA Really, Alexander Malkevich, making it a crime to conduct financial transactions with him.

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Treasury described USA Really as part of a broad Russian campaign “to interfere in political and electoral systems worldwide,” adding that some of the actions were under the direction of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a friend of Putin who was one of the sponsors of a Russian “troll factory” accused of meddling in 2016 U.S. elections.

USA Really “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues but is generally ridden with inaccuracies,” Treasury said.

Malkevich visited the United States multiple times in 2018, attempting to organize a rally to support President Donald Trump in front of the White House in June. Days after that attempt fizzled, Malkevich spoke with McClatchy.

Malkevich was briefly detained at Washington’s Dulles Airport after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

“Malkevich was searched and illegally interrogated as an international criminal and all his electronic devices were scanned,” a USA Really story said on Dec. 20. It noted that the Russian was told he must register in the United States as a foreign agent.

The website said the actions against USA Really and Malkevich comprised “reckless, unsubstantiated accusations against an independent and unbiased news agency.”

Reached for comment, Malkevich said he was “on vacation” and would need time to formulate a response.

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Facebook and Twitter both shut down accounts by USA Really in mid-2018.

Security certificates were developed to enhance trust between operators of websites and internet users, ensuring the legitimacy and legal identity of the sites and allowing for encryption for credit card purchases and other sensitive transactions. There are several levels of security encryption. Most display a padlock in the address bar when engaged.

Security certificates issued by the California public-benefit nonprofit expire after 90 days.

“So within 90 days all browsers will show an error if usareally.com continues to use a certificate from us. They will not be able to renew from us,” Aas said.

“If usareally.com stops using the certificate we provided then users will not see certificate errors any more but the site will not be using secure HTTPS, and browsers may display other warnings about that. Chrome, for example, will mark the site as ‘Not Secure’ in the URL bar,” he said.

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© 2019 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.