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News Brief: CDC And COVID-19 Data, Twitter Hack, Mary Trump Memoir

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Who keeps track of the data that measure the pandemic?

NOEL KING, HOST:

Up to now, it's been the CDC. But the Trump administration is now telling hospitals to send that information to a new database at the Department of Health and Human Services. The change will have big implications. And it's baffling health officials because this is data like the number of cases that officials and, really, all of us are using to decide how we respond to the pandemic.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pien Huang has been reporting on this change for NPR. Good morning.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what was the system? And what is it supposed to be now?

HUANG: Yeah. Well, since the beginning, Steve, of the pandemic, hospitals have been reporting this information directly to the CDC. It's been things like how many COVID patients they have and how many beds are available and whether they have enough masks and gloves and ventilators. And suddenly this week, a lot of hospitals got an email from the American Hospital Association saying, don't report this information to the CDC anymore.

Instead, it's going to go into a new system set up by a private company that routes this data directly to HHS. Or as a second option, hospitals can also send the information directly to state health departments. But either way, CDC will stop getting this data directly. And a lot of people aren't happy about it. We spoke with Dr. Georges Benjamin, who's director of the American Public Health Association. And he's worked in a lot of health emergencies.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: One thing that I've learned is you never ever, ever change processes in the middle of a disaster. It does not go well when you do that. No one knows what to do. And it basically confuses your response.

INSKEEP: OK. So given that, why change over to this private company in the middle of the pandemic?

HUANG: Well, HHS issued a statement saying that the CDC's reporting system was slow. And CDC Director Robert Redfield said yesterday that there's a need to modernize their data collection systems. But the timing for the move is unclear. And recently, the Trump White House has been openly critical of the advice that they're getting from federal scientists. So some researchers, like epidemiologist Saskia Popescu from University of Arizona, says, looks like it could be part of a pattern.

SASKIA POPESCU: It's really hard not to see this as some kind of interference or, like, snub at the CDC. It's hard not to see it that way. And I think with so many concerns over politicization of data right now, this is concerning.

HUANG: And she also says that the timing for the change is awful, as many hospitals are really struggling to handle their COVID cases right now.

INSKEEP: Do people at the CDC think they have been snubbed?

HUANG: Well, you know, it's hard to get particular comments from within the CDC. But I did speak with Dr. Daniel Pollock. He's been with the CDC for 36 years. And his title is surveillance branch chief for the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, which is that group that's in charge of getting and analyzing that hospital data. And he didn't necessarily say they were snubbed.

But he said that their data collection system wasn't slow. It's processing data just as quickly as any of the other reporting methods. And he says the CDC has longstanding relationships with the hospitals. And they have a lot of experience analyzing that data, too. And he's just not sure that the new system will be able to replicate what the CDC does.

DANIEL POLLOCK: They've been stood up relatively recently. And they don't have the track record and the expertise that we're able to provide.

HUANG: And another big concern that others in the public health community have is whether the state is going to be publicly available. So here's Dr. Ashish Jha. He's a global health professor at Harvard.

ASHISH JHA: We absolutely need to see a commitment from the administration for transparency and making sure that that data and information is public and verifiable.

HUANG: The administration says it'll be posting the data on an HHS platform that CDC will still have access to. And the data reporting change just went into effect yesterday.

INSKEEP: OK. So we'll have to see how it works. NPR's Pien Huang. Thanks so much.

HUANG: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some of America's most prominent Twitter users were hacked yesterday.

KING: If you happened to be on Twitter, it looked like Barack Obama, Jeff Bezos, Apple and Uber had all suddenly decided to tweet about Bitcoin. It definitely seemed scammy (ph). And it turns out it was. So what's Twitter doing to secure itself now?

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn's on the line. Bobby, good morning.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did this happen, for people who did not witness it themselves on Twitter as it unfolded?

ALLYN: So a tweet started making the rounds saying if you send money to an anonymous Bitcoin address, you'll get double the money back. It was pretty obviously a scam, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ALLYN: But then a version of this message was shared by some of the richest, most famous people in the world - Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Kanye West. And it was being tweeted by major corporations like Uber and Apple. And suddenly, it became clear that hackers had hijacked hundreds of high-profile Twitter accounts in what turned out to be a very coordinated and, frankly, stunning fashion.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Twitter ended up having to freeze the accounts, effectively, of a whole bunch of prominent people to prevent more hacking. Eventually, they unfroze them. But do we know who was behind this?

ALLYN: Twitter says hackers targeted employees with access to sensitive internal administrative systems. But we don't know how involved those Twitter employees were in all of this and much about the hackers at all - who they are, where they're based, what their motive is. It's all unknown.

Some on Twitter followed these scammy links shared by Bezos, Obama and Kanye and transferred bitcoin hoping for a payday. Of course, bitcoin transactions are irreversible and very anonymous. And since they're nearly impossible to trace, the transactions won't leave behind many clues. I asked Mike Chapple if he had any ideas about who might be behind this hack. And he would know. He's a former National Security Agency computer scientist. And here's what he had to say.

MIKE CHAPPLE: There wasn't, like, a huge political or strategic motive here. So that makes me think it was probably not a foreign country or some kind of force like that that was conducting this attack. And it's just somebody out to make a few bucks.

ALLYN: And the hackers did generate some income. A public record of the bitcoin transfers shows that more than $100,000 was sent to the hackers, who really could have done something a lot more dangerous by gaining this type of access.

INSKEEP: Well, that's what I'm thinking about, Bobby. A lot of journalists follow Twitter. Twitter can drive what's in the news media. A certain president of the United States says things on Twitter all the time. What he says can change the stock market. So is the platform still vulnerable?

ALLYN: That is the big question right now. Really unsettling to security experts is something Twitter said, which is, they are looking into other malicious activities the hackers may have committed, which means this investigation is not over. Did the hackers access other high-profile accounts we don't know about? Did they access private messages? Do they have information that they're withholding but plan to release at a later date? These are all big question marks.

And some of the accounts hacked had multiple layers of password protection and account protection. And that just added to the shock of how exactly did hackers get into these accounts. Data privacy lawyer Tim Toohey says if it is proven that someone inside of Twitter voluntarily handed over administrative controls to the hackers, then Twitter has a serious problem.

TIM TOOHEY: It shows that there's some sort of systemic failure within the company to guard the most basic element of the security, which is to make sure that you have backstops and checks on employees going rogue.

INSKEEP: What should Twitter users do now?

ALLYN: Yeah. You know, security experts tell me that any ordinary user on Twitter should use enhanced security protections, like two-factor authentication. But I think what this hack shows is no matter what steps you take to protect yourself online, nothing is foolproof.

INSKEEP: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: President Trump's niece says her new book is not about revenge.

KING: Yeah. Mary Trump wrote a memoir about growing up in the Trump family. She makes damning observations in the book that question the president's fitness for office. She writes that his family propped him up for their own financial gain. She says her grandfather is 100% responsible for her dad's death and it's the reason she was disinherited. But despite all of that talk of dysfunction, she says this book is not about payback.

INSKEEP: Rachel Martin talked with Mary Trump about what the book is about. Good morning, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hello.

INSKEEP: What did you learn about the president you didn't know?

MARTIN: So what we see for the first time, Steve, is this picture of how Donald Trump came to be. And we see this picture from someone actually in the Trump family, which is a first. Here's what Mary Trump said about what makes her uncle so dangerous.

MARY TRUMP: His willingness to tear down everything - people, institutions, family - in order to get what he wants.

MARTIN: Where does that come from?

TRUMP: That comes from my grandfather. Donald learned from a very young age that in order to survive in my family, he needed to be what my grandfather referred to as a killer.

MARTIN: So Mary Trump says this happened because of how Donald and her father, Freddy Trump, were raised. She said Fred Trump Sr. emotionally abused them. He neglected them. When he did pay attention, it was only to belittle or bully. She says that drove her father to drink. Alcoholism would eventually contribute to his death. And she says her grandfather, Fred Trump, is to blame for that.

INSKEEP: I appreciate hearing her voice, the pace, choosing every word carefully. But I'm thinking about the story. If the father was that abusive, how did the other son, Donald Trump, become the face of the Trump family business?

MARTIN: Right. So according to her, Fred Trump Sr. eventually saw enough of himself in Donald that he decided to prop him up time and time again even when it wasn't necessarily good business. He tried to bail him out when Donald Trump's casinos were failing.

INSKEEP: Right.

MARTIN: He gave Donald a lot of second chances because Donald Trump actually had something that Fred Trump didn't have. He had charisma. He had charm. And he had been able to create and perpetuate a narrative around himself about being a successful businessman, something Fred Trump could never do - all that despite Donald's moral failings, Mary Trump says.

The family built him up because to do otherwise would have been too big a risk for their own fortunes. It's important to note, Steve, Mary Trump and her brother were left out of the family fortune, she says, because her grandfather thought of them and their father as a disgrace. She and her brother sued the family over the will. And it caused a really deep rift that has never fully healed.

INSKEEP: Well, having known all this for years, why would she speak out now?

MARTIN: I asked her that. And she said she didn't believe it would have made a difference before, that no one would have listened. During the campaign, she says criticism of her uncle just seemed to fall away from him. I was only one person. I could easily have been painted as a disgruntled, disinherited, embittered niece, she told me. And then she anticipated another critique.

TRUMP: What I would say to people who would say I'm doing it for revenge is, no. I'm - to me, this is justice.

MARTIN: She says she wants America to have the full picture of Donald Trump to inform their choice in November.

INSKEEP: Rachel, thanks for that.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Rachel Martin, a conversation with Mary Trump, who says she's voting for Joe Biden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.