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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)

International

Thousands of Nigerians Continue to Protest for Widespread Police Reforms Following SARS Disbandment

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  • Nigerians are protesting against human rights abuses carried out by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit commonly known as SARS.
  • The police unit has been caught on video multiple times shooting, torturing, extorting, beating, robbing, and kidnapping Nigerians.
  • A video of a SARS officer shooting a young man while confiscating the man’s Lexus on October 3 sparked outrage across the West African nation, leading to protests since October 8.
  • Since then, the government has agreed to some demands and disbanded the unit for the fourth time, only to replace it with a SWAT unit.
  • Still, Nigerians continue to protest, demanding wide-scale police reforms.

SARS Accused of Major Human Rights Abuses

Nigeria has been rocked by ongoing protests over police brutality stemming from the long time corruption and abuse by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

The squad, better known as SARS, has long been embroiled in controversy for engaging in torture, mock executions, robbery, extortion, kidnapping, harassment, and murder. For many Nigerians, the unit is just the worst example of many of the abuses that Nigerian police engage in and is part of a systemic problem.

The most recent anger was sparked by a video that went viral on October 3, which shows a SARS officer was seen shooting a young man in front of a hotel while taking away his Lexus SUV. Adding to the collective anger was news that the phone used to record the incident was quickly confiscated by SARS officers after the video went live.

Following days of simmering, the tensions boiled over on October 8, after activists and social media called for wide-scale protests to demand SARS be disbanded. Like many recent protests worldwide, the message was quickly spread and amplified with the help of social media, prompting tens of thousands of people across Nigeria to take to the streets and make #endSARS trend online.

Wide-Scale Protests Across Nigeria

Since October 8, the ongoing protests have been mainly peaceful, although there have been incidents of police interfering with heavy-handed tactics. Online, hundreds of videos can be found of police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds. Others show them wildly shooting into crowds of protesters.

However, these actions often have the opposite of their intended effect and draw out more protesters daily. Additionally, the videos of violent police tactics amplify the message worldwide, especially as members of the Nigerian diaspora push the topic online.

Nigerian actor John Boyega has actively supported the movement on Twitter, calling out Nigerian police corruption. Similarly, Nigerian rapper Burna Boy made serious efforts to spread information about the protests to his global audience.

On October 10, he made a statement, promising to help fund any protester who is harmed and/or arrested by police during demonstrations. He also asked for donations to that fund and promised to make sure people are educated about the situation. To that end, he has been funding billboards with #ENDSARS and relevant information across the United Kingdom.


In North America, multiple artists have come out in support of the cause. Rapper Kanye West tweeted out, “I stand with my Nigerian brothers and sisters to end police brutality, the government must answer to the peoples cries #EndPoliceBrutalityinNigeria”

Meanwhile, fellow artist Drake highlighted a post about the situation on his Instagram story.

SARS Out, SWAT In

As the protests continued, the message and movement evolved. On Sunday, a list of demands began to be circulated on social media.

Beyond wanting SARS disbanded, the demands called for anyone arrested during the protests to be released. It also called for compensation for those killed by police brutality in Nigeria.

It’s unknown exactly how many have died as a result of the protests, but Human Rights Watch estimates that upwards of 10 people have been killed by police while protesting.

Demonstrators are also calling for an independent body be set up within 10 days to investigate and prosecute all reports of police misconduct, as well as psychological evaluations and retraining of SARS operatives before they were moved to other units.

Additionally, protesters want to ensure that Nigerian police are adequately paid, so they’re less willing to engage in corruption.

Protesters got a major victory on Sunday when the government announced that SARS would be disbanding and there would be investigations into the conduct of the officers. Until those investigations were complete, SARS officers would be placed into other units after a psychological evaluation, in line with protester demands.

However, for many protesters, this wasn’t enough. They want widespread police reforms, especially because disbanding SARS isn’t a new thing.

This will be the fourth time the unit has been disbanded, and each time it’s brought back, it faces the same accusations. It’s widely believed that the unit isn’t the problem and instead blame the mindset within Nigerian police that allows a unit like SARS to be so brutal and corrupt.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that police finally agreed to stop using force against protesters. At the same time, President Muhammadu Buhari gave a speech where he promised that widespread police reforms would come.

“I want to use this opportunity to address the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force, and in some cases extrajudicial killings and wrongful conduct, by men of the Nigerian police force,” he said.

The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure the primary of the police and other law enforcement agencies remain the protection of lives.” and added, “We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.”

Many Nigerians were bitterly disappointed when it was announced that SARS would be replaced with a group known as Special Weapons Assault Team, or SWAT.

With that, protests continued into Wednesday, and demands have been expanded to call for more fundamental changes to the police system. The calls are similar to ones made against police in countries like the U.S. and U.K. following the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

See What Others Are Saying: (Reuters) (CNN) (Vanguard Nigeria)

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Cardi B and Los Angeles Times Face Backlash for Perceived Stances on Armenia and Azerbaijan Conflict

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  • Estimates say that the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijani in Nagorno-Karabakh has resulted in more than 1,000 military deaths, on top of dozens of civilian deaths on both sides.
  • It has also hyper-polarized online communities, causing both celebrities and new outlets to become bombarded with backlash for their perceived stances on the situation.
  • Rapper Cardi B, for instance, shared a fundraiser for Armenia on her Instagram Story at the request of a business associate and quickly removed it after facing outrage from Azeri internet users.
  • The artist later admitted she didn’t do enough research on the topic before appearing to take a side and only wants peace.
  • The Los Angeles Times faced similar backlash, but from Armenian activists, after posting an article that featured a quote from an Azeri diplomat.

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Goes Online

Rapper Cardi B and The Los Angeles Times have each found themselves in hot water after receiving backlash from Azeri and Armenian groups over tweets and articles published over the last two days.

On Monday, The Times ran an article about the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and its efforts to help the breakaway region of the Republic of Artsakh.

Armenians felt the article was so poorly done that hundreds showed up at the paper’s El Segundo headquarters on Tuesday to protest. The group blocked access to the nearby Imperial Highway and adjacent streets, shouting “Shame on the LA Times.”

However, many took issue with the fact that it also included a quote from the Consul General of Los Angeles, who provided an unsubstantiated claim.

“The racist and white supremacist propaganda promoted by Armenia and their allies, with which they intend to cash in on the already divisive environment and Islamophobic prejudices, must be condemned by everyone who believe that such dangerous bigotry and intolerance have no place in Europe, U.S. or anywhere else.” The Consul general told the Los Angeles Times

Armenian activists claim that including the quote without any pushback was irresponsible and was spreading disinformation.

The ongoing conflict has proven to be hyper-polarizing for all sides involved, and given that Los Angeles has one of the largest Armenian populations in the world, many felt such a strong local reaction was not unsurprising. To give context, there is only one city in the world with a larger Armenian population that the LA-metro area: Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Worldwide there have been mass protests from the Armenian diaspora. On Wednesday, Brussels had hundreds of protesters outside of E.U. government buildings chanting “Hayastan!”- the Armenian word for Armenia.

“Just Want Peace”

It’s not just Armenians pushing back online. On Monday, Cardi B shared an Armenian fundraiser on her Instagram Story and it turned into a nightmare for the artist. The fundraiser is run by the Armenian government and uses the funds for various projects in Artsakh.

Turkish and Azeri users online pushed back at the artist for appearing to support the Armenian side of the conflict. In fact, some argued that by promoting that fundraiser, Cardi B was supporting terrorism.

By Tuesday morning, she took down the post and issued an apology on Twitter. She explained that she shared the fundraiser as a favor to her Armenian real-estate consultant after a quick conversation.

“He’s saying there’s a lot of terrible genocides going on in his country,” she wrote. “And he says, ‘Can you please post something for a cause, a good cause for Armenia?’”

“And we said, ‘sure, why not?’ you know? We love to support everybody. And I wake up and I see a lot of people from Azerbaijan is writing me things, writing me stuff, and I did not know that this is a war between two countries.”

The rapper went on to talk about her positive experience in Armenia but tried to distance herself from the situation by adding that both countries seem to be filled with history and are interesting.

“I did a little bit of research today since you guys left me so much [comments]. My wish is that both the countries would just be at peace. Know what I’m saying?” She added. “There’s no little land. You guys already have big pieces of land. There is no little tiny land that is worth chaos death fighting, especially in this year.”

She also responded to a user who was trying to push the hashtag #CardiBSupportsTerrorism, writing, “Stfu I don’t support terrorism.I literally posted it for my friend with out doing no research on what’s going on .Im sorry about that .I don’t like war .I don’t like conflicts between two countries period cause I hate innocent people being affected by it.”

Fighting On the Ground Continues

In Nagorno-Karabakh, fighting has continued since September 27. Over the past week, Azerbaijan claims to have captured some towns in the south of the region. If true, this marks a pretty significant advancement into the territory for Azeri troops.

While the fighting has escalated, so have the casualties, though exact numbers are hard to determine on both sides. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan are reporting how many military deaths have occurred since fighting began. Only the breakaway Republic of Artsakh has given any numbers, claiming it has lost 280 soldiers since the fighting began.

Total military deaths are thought to be over a thousand currently.

Even though the combatants are slow to reveal military casualties, they are more open about civilian deaths. Azerbaijan has hit multiple cities in Artsakh with missiles and drone strikes, leading to reportedly over two dozen civilian deaths.

On the other side, Armenian forces are accused of targeting Azeri cities like Ganja with their own attacks, leading to about a dozen deaths.

See What Others Are Saying: (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times) (Reuters)

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Brutal Fighting Continues Between Azerbaijan and Armenia Over Breakaway Region

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  • On Sunday fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, who is supporting the breakaway Republic of Artsakh in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
  • The territory, known as Artsakh to Armenians, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has a majority ethnic-Armenian government.
  • The region is recognized by all United Nations members as being part of Azerbaijan, although Armenia’s long-standing support of the breakaway Republic of Artsakh has consistently escalated tensions.
  • Turkey promised to support Azerbaijan, while other nations around the world have asked for de-escalation.

Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh?

Long-standing tensions between Armenia, the de-facto independent Republic of Artsakh, and Azerbaijan erupted into fighting Sunday in the highly contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The region is known as Artsakh to ethnic Armenians.

Sunday’s fighting broke out across the entire Line of Contact, which is a network of military fortifications that separate forces in the region. The region’s capital, Stepanakert, has also been subject to military actions such as shelling and drone strikes.

In addition to fighting on the ground, the conflict has played out online as well. Shortly after fighting began, Hikmet Hajiyev, the head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department in Azerbaijan, accused Armenia of starting the fighting, saying that on Sunday, the armed forces of Armenia“blatantly violated the ceasefire regime and, using large-caliber weapons, mortar launchers and artillery have launched an intensive attack on the position of the armed forces of Azerbaijan along the frontline.”

“The armed forces of the Republic of Azerbaijan are undertaking necessary counter-offensive measures to prevent Armenia’s another military aggression and ensure the security of the civilian population,” he added. “The responsibility for the present situation and future developments lie squarely with Armenia’s political-military leadership.”

However, subsequent statements from President Ilham Aliyev suggest that the entire conflict is part of an effort to “retake” the region.

On the Armenian side, Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, tweeted out, “Azerbaijan has launched a missile & aerial attack against #Artsakh. Peaceful settlements including Stepanakert have been attacked.”

Armenian side has shot down 2 helicopters & 3 UAVs, destroyed 3 tanks. We stay strong next to our army to protect our motherland from Azeri invasion.”

Initially, there was some skepticism that the fighting escalated to such a point that large munitions were being used on targets, but as the weeks progressed, more footage and images from the fighting show that tanks, aircraft, drones, and artillery have all been deployed.

Fighting, From Bad to Worse

Both sides have announced military and civilian deaths. Armenia claims over 100 military personnel and 23 civilians have died. The Armenian Ministry of Defense added that 230 Azeri soldiers have been killed.

Azerbaijan defense officials claimed on Wednesday to have killed thousands of Armenian and Artsakh troops and to have “destroyed 130 tanks, 200 artillery units, 25 anti-aircraft units, five ammunition depots, 50 anti-tank units, 55 military vehicles.”

The conflict seems to have escalated beyond the disputed region itself, with evidence that Azerbaijan has used drones to strike targets within Armenia.

Beyond direct military actions, each government has drawn up more troops. On Sunday, Armenia declared martial law and called for a general mobilization. That same day, the Republic of Artsakh announced all able-bodied men would be drawn into service, while Azerbaijan declared a partial-mobilization.

2020 has seen tensions in the region drastically escalate. Earlier in the year during fighting that broke out in July, 14 people died, including two senior Armenian officers who were killed in a drone strike.

Longstanding, Divisive History

There has been long-standing conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh. For thousands of years, Armenians have been the ethnic-majority in the mountainous region. During it’s various stints as part of other empires, the area was normally ruled by Armenian princes, or outside rulers from occupying powers.

In the 1800’s, both Armenia and Azerbaijan became part of the Russian Empire, where Nagorno-Karabakh was administered in the same zone as Azerbaijan and other Caucus territories, while Armenia was administered as its own polity. When the empire dissolved during World War I, both nations gained their independence and promptly went to war over who controls Nagorno-Karabakh.

During that war, the Soviets took over both nations and made forcefully brokered a peace that eventually saw Stalin putting the region under the administrative control of the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, despite its Armenian majority.

For many Armenians, especially those living in the Nagorno-Karabakh, this was unacceptable and the catalysts for the modern conflict. Census data from the time shows it was roughly 90% Armenian.

Open conflict didn’t occur again until the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. In the late ’80s both Armenia and Azerbaijan, while still nominally part of the same country, went to war over the territory.

When they both declared independence in 1991, so did the Armenians within Nagorno-Karabakh, calling themselves the Republic of Artsakh. The war devolved into Armenia and the Republic of Artsakh fighting Azerbaijan. All sides accused the others of ethnic cleansing in the region. Leading to Armenians leaving Azerbaijan to Nagorno-Karabakh, while Azeris fled to other parts of Azerbaijan.

Now the region is nearly 100% Armenian. 

A ceasefire was signed that left all sides unhappy. Azerbaijan refused to give up any claims to the land, while Armenia has stationed troops in the region to reinforce the Republic of Artsakh. However, the entire region is still internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Source: BBC

No UN-member state, not even Armenia, officially recognize the Republic of Artsakh as independent. 

Calls for Peace

Around the world, countries have come out in various ways to show support or call for peace. On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Erdogan sent out a series of tweets not only blaming Armenia for the attacks but also saying “it is the biggest threat to peace and tranquility in the region.”

He went on to call on Armenian to resist their government “who use them like a puppet.

Most countries took a more neutral stance, asking that the two sides deescalate the situation. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson told state TV on Sunday, “Iran is closely monitoring the conflict with concern and calls for an immediate end to the conflict and the start of talks between the two countries.”

French, Russian, and U.S. officials also called on both sides to stop fighting, along with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). the OSCE, who France, Russia, and the U.S. are all a part of, was responsible for mediating the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan back in the ’90s.

Call for peace haven’t made much headway, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have rejected any calls for another ceasefire.

See What Others Are Saying: (BBC) (CNN) (Reuters)

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