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COVID-19: The Cold War Begins In The Cyberspace (Not so cold anymore!)

by Yamya Reiki

These were the beginning years of the Cold War when the two major powers of the USA and the USSR were engaged in a face-off without direct confrontation. While the USSR was a communist regime, consisting of 15 republics headed by a single party, the USA was a democracy based on capitalism. The political and economic systems of the capitalist USA and the communist USSR found themselves incompatible and grew intolerant of each other. By the year 1949, both were trying to peddle their influences throughout the world and succeeded in creating what is called The Iron Curtain separating Europe into two parts. On 4th of April 1949, the USA formed a military alliance between countries of the western bloc called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The same year, USSR successfully tested its first nuclear weapon.

The war of influence had now begun on a larger scale. In order to propagate the communist ideology, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin signed The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, just a year after the formation of NATO. However, the alliance later broke. It was only due to a de-Stalinization of the USSR by Khrushchev that not only criticized Stalin and Stalinism but changed the ideological orientation from Stalin’s confrontation of the West to Khrushchev’s coexistence with the West that led to the Sino-Soviet Split.

Contrary to the common belief, the Cold War did not really end in 1991, but has continued to the present times. In the past few months, since the pandemic of COVID-19 began, at-least five China-based Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) began to actively target the US and its allies. The likes of Mustang Panda, Pirate Panda, APT22, APT41, The Calypso Group, Winnti and APT1 are mostly China-backed. ATP41 recently launched a global intrusion campaign in March, 2020.

Interestingly, the Chinese Hacker culture evidently traces its roots back to Cyber-Nationalism, somewhere inspired by the Communist ideologies. There were the Chinese Red Hackers who made their name in the Chinese media in August 1998 by launching attacks against Indonesian websites. Between 1998 and 2001, the red hackers performed attacks against Japan, the United States, Indonesia, and Taiwan. Contrary to the belief, these Red Hackers were widely celebrated among the Chinese for performing faithful nationalist acts of engaging in politically motivated hacking against foreign entities for protecting the national interest of China. So, the big question is if it is again the Cold War between the capitalists and the communists? However, if it is like it seems, this time the Communists have gotten brutally upon the Democratic

Capitalists of the West which is going to lead to a shift of powers, from the West to the East, in the days to come.

Apart from China, its Cold-War ally at one time, Russia has backed TA542 (Mummy Spider), the Gamaredon, APT28 and its associate Hades that have actively participated in the pandemic

 cyber-play. Gamaredon actively sent phishing emails using COVID-19 theme and employed remote template injection within their lure. While the Russia-backed APTs are mostly targeting Ukraine and the USA, the notorious North Korea sponsored Konni has collaborated with the evil Kimsuky (famous for the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power cyber terrorism attacks of 2014) to expand its target regions from the US, Japan, Vietnam, Nepal and India to Romania and many more.

Since the Cold War never actually ended, the question arises if it simply shifted from the nuclear arms race to an actual cyber warfare? The pandemic seems to have provided a strong cover to the state-sponsored hackers who are going about disrupting healthcare services and economies. Whether or not COVID-19 is a consciously calculated effort, it does not change the fact that the cyber attacks are deliberate.

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