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US, UK, and Canada Accuse Russian Intelligence of Hacking Research Facilities Trying to Find a Coronavirus Vaccine

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  • U.S., U.K., and Canadian agencies are accusing Russia of stealing research into a COVID-19 vaccine through known cyber attack exploits.
  • In a report published Thursday, the three nations officially stated for the first time that the group known as Cozy Bear is a part of Russian intelligence services, a group known for targeting the DNC during the 2016 election.
  • However, it’s unlikely that any damage was actually done to research since the goal seems to have been to steal data for Russian use.
  • The report never stated if any data was actually stolen or not.

Cyber Attacks Against COVID-19 Research

Intelligence and security agencies from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada accused Russian intelligence services of instigating cyber attacks against research facilities that are trying to find a COVID-19 vaccine.

In a report published Thursday titled “Advisory: APT29 targets COVID-19 vaccine development,” the U.K. National Cyber Security Centre, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment, and the U.S. National Security Agency wrote, “Throughout 2020, APT29 has targeted various organisations  involved in COVID-19 vaccine development in Canada, the United States and the United  Kingdom, highly likely with the intention of stealing information and intellectual property relating to the development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines.”

It also states that APT29 is just another name for a famous group of cyber attackers, writing “this report details recent Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures of the group commonly known as ‘APT29’, also known as ‘the Dukes’ or ‘Cozy Bear’.”

The name Cozy Bear may sound familiar because its the same group accused of hacking the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 election.

This report, for the first time, clearly states that the Canadians, British, and Americans officially think Cozy Bear “is a cyber espionage group, almost certainly part of the Russian intelligence services.” While the group has long been assumed to be a part of the Russian security services, in the past it was only ever officially referred to as a “state-backed actor.”

This report follows a similar story from May when the U.S. and U.K. accused “state-back actors” of targeting organizations responding to the coronavirus pandemic with cyber attacks. However, at the time the names of the groups involved were never released.

How Did Cozy Bear Attack?

According to this recent report, Cozy Bear gained access to computers and systems through a variety of methods. Some of these are well known to the public, while others are believed to have been put into the public domain for the first time ever with this report.

Many of these attacks stem from gaining access to machines through well-known security exploits. Most of the exploits have been patched over the last two years, and the report urges companies and organizations to ensure they are up to date. 

After gaining access, the attackers would use a malware called SoreFang, which is essentially just a downloader that allows the attacker to put more malware onto a computer. The two other prominent malware mentioned in the report are WellMess and WellMail.

WellMess was discovered in 2018 and allows the hackers to upload and download files from a victim’s computer. While WellMail allows the hacker to execute scripts on a victim’s machine and send that data to a server. The report also states that to their knowledge, information about WellMail hasn’t been in the public domain until today.

Other hacking methods include one of the oldest tricks in the book: phishing. Phishing and Spear Phishing are when a cyber attacker tries to trick someone to give their login credentials. This can be through generic emails pretending to be from an organization, or a more personalized email.

Damage Done to Research

Thursday’s report doesn’t state if research efforts into a COVID-19 vaccine were hampered, nor does it name any specific facilities that were targeted. Yet, it doesn’t seem like any damage was actually done. According to The New York Times, “Outside experts said it appeared that the Russians were simply copying information, not trying to damage the research organizations.”

One of those experts is Mike Chapple, an associate professor teaching cybersecurity at Notre Dame, who said: “The potential harm here is limited to commercial harm, to companies that are devoting a lot of their own resources into developing a vaccine in hopes it will be financially rewarding down the road.”

It’s not too shocking that information that could help Russia develop their own vaccine would be targeted as the country has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Initially, Russian agencies stated they had no cases at all and had it under control; however, now they report cases. As of July 16, there’s been over 750,000 confirmed cases and nearly 12,000 deaths.

Even if the hacks likely didn’t actually affect the progress of research, it didn’t stop officials from being upset about them. British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said in a statement, “While others pursue their selfish interests with reckless behaviour, the UK and its allies are getting on with the hard work of finding a vaccine and protecting global health.”

While the NSCS’ Director of Operations, Paul Chichester, condemned the attacks. “We condemn these despicable attacks against those doing vital work to combat the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

Despite the indignation from the U.S., U.K., and Canada, Chapple noted to The New York Times that there’s a chance those three were doing the same to other countries.

It wouldn’t surprise me if intelligence services of all nations are doing this same kind of thing and using the information to advance their research against coronavirus,” he added.

For their part, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegations, telling the Russian news agency RIA that the allegations were not backed by proper evidence.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The New York Times) (Reuters)

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Tunisian President Fires Prime Minister, Suspends Parliament Over Deadlock and COVID-19 Response

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President Kais Saied claims his actions are constitutional and have the support of the military, which has already blocked off government buildings. His opponents, however, call the move little more than a coup.


President Makes Massive Changes to Government

Tunisia’s government received a major shakeup after President Kais Saied fired the Prime Minister and froze parliament late Sunday.

The move, according to Saied, was meant to break years of parliamentary deadlock between Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and various political parties that have sturggled to find common ground. However, the timing comes just after a massive protest over how the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic turned violent earlier on Sunday.

Either way, the move risks sparking a confrontation between Saied —who is backed by the army — and various political parties that view his actions as a coup.

The President’s actions have proven cotnroversial. Despite that, he has widepsread support after being elected in 2019 on a platform to fight corrupt politicians.

After the announcement, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in support of his decision to dismiss the Prime Minister and parliament, with many cheering as he appeared among the crowd Sunday night.

In recent months, anger at the ruling government has only increased as many feel the ruling coalition, largely made up of the Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party, have been ineffective.

It’s a common belief in Tunisia that Ennahda’s rule, alongside its tenuous coalition, helped exacerbate problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the economy shrinking by 8% as tourism plummeted.

One of the President’s supporters told Reuters and other outlets during Sunday’s demonstration, “We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong presence in Egpyt after the Arab Spring, becuase Ennahda has longstanding relationship with the group, although it has sought to distance itself as a more moderate political group over the last few years.

Now, for their part, the ruling coalition has argued that Saied’s move is clearly unconstitutional. Rached Ghannouchi, leade of Ennahda and Parliamentary Speaker, said that he is “against gathering all powers in the hands of one person.” His position isn’t without supporters eithers. Both sides have already gathered throughout the capital and have thrown rocks at each other.

Legalities of Article 80

The question across many minds is whether or not Saied’s actions are actually constitutional.

He claims that under Article 80 of the constitution, he can fire the Prime Minister, suspend parliament for 30 days, and appoint a premier to rule — all of which is true.

However, in order to do that, the Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Speaker need to be consulted; something Parliamentary Speaker Ghannouchi said was never done. It’s unclear what Mechichi’s position is as he’s stayed inside his home all day, though the army says he is not under any kind of arrest.

In addition to those requirements, a Constitutional Court needs to approve the move, and one hasn’t been set up. As the German Foregin Office put it on Monday morning, it seems like Saied is relying on “a rather broad interpretation of the constitution.”

International observers hope a solution will soon be made to keep what seems to be the last functional democracy to come from the Arab Spring from devolving into civil war or dictatorship.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Reuters) (BBC)

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South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall

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The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.


Trapped in a Flood

The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.

Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.

The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.

In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.

Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.

Long Recovery Ahead

The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.

Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.

In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.

Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.

It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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