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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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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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