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Typos May Have Endangered U.S. National Security

This isn't exactly about politics, but it is sort of politics-adjacent. Back in the old days, a memo from one U.S. general to another was unlikely to end up in an authoritarian country in West Africa. But now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it is not only possible, but common. How can that be? Military email addresses end with ".mil" but if the sender mistypes that as ".ml", it goes to the West African country of Mali, whose domain names end in ".ml," just one letter away from ".mil."

A study by Dutch Internet entrepreneur Johannes Zuurbier shows that this is not just a theoretical possibility. It has happened millions of times over the past decade. Information on simple things, like where personnel will be staying when they are traveling, could lead to targeted attacks. Zuurbier raised the issue with U.S. officials earlier this year when he discovered it, so they are aware of the issue.

Mali is an unstable country. There was a rebellion in 2012, a civil war in 2015, a coup in 2021, and another coup in 2021. The current authoritarian government is somewhat pro-Russian. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Mali on Feb. 7, 2023. On Feb. 23, 2023, Mali was one of the seven countries in the U.N. to vote against the motion calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Coincidences happen. It is not the kind of place where sensitive communications intended for anyone with a .mil address should be landing, especially given the friendliness between Mali and Russia. Of course, there has to be an e-mail address with the same username as the valid one (e.g., ""), but the Russians would have no trouble making sure that such addresses exist in Mali. In any event, all email ending in ".ml" first gets sent to the Mali gateway. There a check is made to see if the user exists, but the gateway could be programmed to save all incoming mail, even for nonexistent users. The hoard could easily be turned over to the Russians, even in real time. Mali is a very poor country and would probably be willing to do the Russians a favor in return for some number of rubles. (V)

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