Hacking COVID-19

BIG BROTHER - SPYING - SURVEILLANCE - WHISTLEBLOWING, 25 May 2020

Michael Brenner – TRANSCEND Media Service

23 May 2020 – Hacking is back in the headlines. The Chinese are accused of breaking into the computers of unnamed American labs – corporate &/or non-corporate – doing research on a coronavirus vaccine. The operative words are ‘China/Chinese’ and ‘hacking’. The two go together like gin & tonic. That’s a sign of upper mobility for the Cathay crowd; just a short time ago, Russia was the subject noun. True, they haven’t been displaced entirely. Russia/Moscow/Kremlin/Putin still get a fair amount of electronic ink in stories where ‘hack’ is the active verb. No one can deny, though, that Beijing now holds pride of place – as logically it should. Once you have been officially designated America’s Enemy No. 1, a country is awarded all the lavish attention that a frontrunner in the ‘bad guy’ sweepstakes has earned by its presumed malevolence.

An alleged plot to steal the super-secret formula(s) destined to endow a few more billionaires is only the latest in a string of charges levelled at the villain from the East. Let’s not forget that Washington has had to mount a robust preventive war against Huawei to deny it either the right to challenge the global commercial supremacy of its American rivals or stealthily to insert hacking devices into the bits of gadgetry it sells – as the U.S. claims. We should know something about the subject. That is what our own IT companies having been doing for years via software as well as hardware at the behest of our Intelligence agencies and in their own business interests.   But consistency is the hobgoblin of unpatriotic minds when it comes to espionage. The latter charge justifies all-out war on Huawei’s bid for greater market share. The Trump gang has gone so far as to muscle Justin Trudeau into arresting the company’s CFO at Vancouver airport. The White House has confected charges that Huawei violated U.S. law on commerce with Iran – a law that itself violates international law and custom. She now languishes in the unsalabrious care of the Canadian Mounties chaperoned by Sgt. Preston and his faithful husky King – while the ‘O,’ Pompeo and Navarro decide how much ransom they can squeeze out of the Chinese.

This is the background to the latest falderal about the coronavirus. Do the Chinese engage in commercial spying? Of course! So do we – and everybody else. Moreover, it has become standard practice for the US to demand all sorts of commercial concessions by placing the target under political and/or military duress. At[MB1]  the moment we are trying to strong-arm SANOFI-AVENTIS, the Franco-British pharmaceutical firm, into giving the U.S. preferred access to any anti-viral drug they may produce on the specious grounds that the aggregate investment of dollars into the company is greater than the aggregate investment of EUROs and Sterling. That would allow Trump to take credit for curing the illness he has claimed to be a hoax. It would make the USA the greatest at medical innovation as well as at infections and deaths. SANOFI’s CEO at first acquiesced – for reasons the MSM have shown not the least interest in uncovering. Perhaps, the White House calculation is that he along with the heads of government in France and the UK would be in such dread of Washington’s withdrawing the defense umbrella that shields them from the threatening depredations from Russia, Iran, ISIS and the Houthis that they’ll cede to Washington’s outrageous ploy. It’s worked on innumerable occasions before – so why not now? So far, Paris and London have resisted; we will see what the likely “compromise’ turns out to be.

Back to the Oriental hackers. Let’s take a look at the accusations and their meaning.  First, what’s the connection between ‘hacking’ and electronic surveillance? The former refers to illicit means and methods for gaining access to privileged data stored on a computer or on a server. Once acquired, it could be deleted, copied, manipulated or used for one purpose or another. Surveillance usually refers to illicit acquisition of electronic communications between computers, smart phones, etc. Each of those hardware items also can serve as a point of entry to your physical space permitting the intruder to see as well as hear everything that you are doing.

The United States government possesses the means to engage in universal surveillance – as it has for almost a decade. That is in addition to its hacking capabilities. Let us recall that the one indisputable example of surveillance/hacking employed as an attack on the valued asset of another country was the American/Israeli insertion of the STURNEX virus into Iranian computers in order to cripple their nuclear research program. This was only one example of the vast arsenal of aggressive cyber warfare weapons that NSA and the CIA have developed. (The attached article by James Bamford from WIRED details those capabilities and programs for using them. Also attached is my review essay of Edward Snowden’s book which provides valuable detail and explanation as to the scope and depth of our global surveillance).

Surveillance (e.g. electronic spying) nowadays in universal and comprehensive. It can be focused on a specific target insofar as operators can devote time and tools to break down security defenses and, of course, to process the material obtained. Mass data collection is accumulated in huge electronic storage sites where it may either lie dormant or be subject to algorithmic sorting. In theory, algorithms could be deployed to erase certain classes of material e.g. that acquired from Angela Merkel’s cell phone. That is to say, certain persons, offices, or subjects could be excluded in principle – whether for political or personal reasons. Ethics are irrelevant – as are privacy principles which, in the U.S., have been so diluted by law as to be meaningless. Just last week, the Congress renewed its grant of authority to federal agents to conduct surveillance without a warrant from the FISA court. No debate, no opposition. In any case, collaboration among the five English-speaking governments who participate in the Five Eyes surveillance alliance help each other out by doing things that might be awkward for Washington.  So when Chancellor Merkel complains that the Chinese have been monitoring her cell calls, she is charging someone over there with doing something we did routinely a while back, for which we never apologized, which we likely are still doing, and which she pronounced no big deal.

A second issue: can anyone be sure who exactly is doing the hacking &/or surveillance? The answer is ‘NO’ in most instances – at least, not without a reasonable doubt. During the heyday of hysteria over supposed Russian hacking, it served several parties’ interest to take a generous appraisal of evidence: were Cyrillic letters used, did it SEEM to originate from a Russian source, did our algorithm detect signs of a Moscow location, were there statistically significant uses of certain words: Volga, Tsar (not Czar), borscht, troika, Stroganoff, Decembrist Dachas? Not what reasonable people would call an exact science. There may be forensic evidence; is it possible to match the ‘ballistics’ of the intruder (or traces of its presence) to particular sources? No easy, not precise – from what we know of this recondite subject. A forensic examination apparently can determine whether a ‘hacked’ document has been downloaded (requiring the presence of a savvy insider) or accessed externally. Indeed, the former Technical Director at NSA, William Binney, did such a systematic study of the Hillary material released by WikiLeaks. He concluded that it had definitely been downloaded rather than hacked. He has been studiously ignored.

As to the alleged Chinese hack of coronavirus material, the above questions should be addressed before claims are made. In fact, we are presented with no evidence whatsoever – not even the names of the labs supposedly hacked. We are expected to take at face value what the White House, what Mike Pompeo, what other administration unworthies say. One would be a fool, or the editor of a MSM news outlet, to do so. Not only are all of those parties proven liars, but the entire network of spy/surveillance/Intelligence agencies has a stunning record of repeated lying on just about every matter of consequence since 2001. This in not an interpretation or opinion; it is a well- documented fact.

Compounding the doubts about the accuracy and importance of the alleged Chinese action are a large number of more garden variety issues.  The corporate lab in question (if, indeed, it is one and corporate) is only 1 of 14 designated by the White House as carrying the greatest potential for producing an effective, safe vaccine. They are being shoveled money at ‘warp speed’ – whatever that means. In addition, there are 130 other labs engaged in similar research that will not get exceptional government support. Have the Chinese figured out which is most promising? Do they know something we don’t? or, are they spreading their chips around the table? And let’s not forget companies/labs in other countries just as capable as their American counterparts – at Oxford, in Germany, at SANOFI-AVENTIS in Paris, in Japan, and – oh yes – China.  All the jingoists in Washington can visualize are those outfits that fly the Star-and-Stripes. To their parochial minds, it follows that the inherently inferior Chinese would sneak around to steal whatever miracles the nonpareil Yanks are accomplishing.

This tawdry affair distracts from the more compelling question: should the most qualified people around the world be encouraged to cooperate as much as feasibly possible rather than be cast as Olympic contestants for the greater glory of Donald Trump and the profits of American business? As an ancillary concern, we should be alert to the dangers lurking in an approach that stresses speedy results. Developing a safe vaccine is a particularly daunting challenge since the coronavirus is imperfectly understand – widening normal confidence margins about overall, long-term effectiveness and the risk of adverse side-effects. In theory, the FDA and the CDC are vigilant in ensuring the public health against such mishaps. The blunt truth, though, is that the FDA has little credibility given the caliber and political bias of its current leadership. That is manifest in the equivocal words about Hydroxychloroquine that quickly appear after Trump launches one of his quack pitches for his pet remedy.  Even the CDC’s reputation has been tarnished – rightly so – by its pliable Director, Dr. Robert Redfield, who increasingly has demonstrated an unseemly readiness to yield to White House pressure tactics. Then there is Dr. Deborah Birx, Response Coordinator for the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. Birx, who made her entire career in the military, now serves as a Trump minion who stands ready to lend whatever scientific cachet she still possesses to whatever her Commander-in-Chief dictates. Thus, she instructs the CDC to recalibrate its tally of COVID-19 deaths because she believes they are too high – a conclusion that she shares with only one other person.

So, it is by no means implausible to imagine a situation whereby the FDA gives swift approval to an American sponsored drug prematurely that is less effective than foreign rivals &/or can cause a considerable number of collateral deaths. After all, we as a country tolerate a President whose callous incompetence and pathological ego-mania are the cause of tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths – and still counting. Our tolerance for such a massive death toll also has something to do with the demographics – it is overwhelmingly the old who die. Entire nursing homes have been decimated. Mortality rates higher than those recorded during the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century (even worse in England which largely shares our practices)1.The brutal truth is that present-day American society places relatively little value on the treatment of the elderly – millions of whom are warehoused in dreary facilities, poorly staffed and maintained.  State and local monitoring authorities are notoriously negligent in performing their oversight duties – and penalties for abuses virtually non-existent.  Ugly words? yes. The reality is even uglier.

***

P.S.  Since Sunday [17 May], it has been impossible to find data on Covid-19 infections and deaths in the U.S. in the pages of The New York Times. Same for Google News. Query: does anyone have an explanation?  Is it that the national zeitgeist has switched to ’normalcy?’ Are the MSM chieftains suddenly aware that the crisis/lockdown is not good for advertising revenue? Has somebody in authority subtlety conveyed to them the message that the national interest dictates tempering coverage of the Coronavirus? Or, is it simply a sign that we have reached the limits of our capacity for empathy? Once the numbers climb toward 100,000, the graphic images of the antecedent victims may give way to abstract digits – like the number of collateral civilians that we’ve killed in our Middle East wars.

NOTE:

​ 1. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/care-homes-nhs-coronavirus-robert-buckland_uk_5ec4e083c5b6e6382aa75479??ncid=newsltukhpmgnews

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Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. mbren@pitt.eduMore


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 May 2020.

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