Insightful newsletter of Drishtikone: Issue #301 - Wolf Warriors - Hacking and Propaganda

World Diplomacy is fast becoming an 'in-your-face' bashful enterprise. Hacking, propaganda, and scoring on social media are part of national security strategies. And China is thriving in that arena!

Photo by Vincent Chin on Unsplash

“Because there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince


During the Mauryan empire, the espionage operations were in the hands of Samaharta - a high-ranking official who combined finance and home ministries. He also looked after the spy services (Source).

The aim of the Mauryan spies in enemy territories was to “spread confusion, dissension, and misinformation and prepare the ground for the enemy’s defeat.”

Interestingly, one type of characters best suited for espionage in enemy states was the kápatikachhátra (कपटी छात्र). Chanakya surmised that the students from Universities who were argumentative, brash, and intelligent should be used to create an uprising in the enemy kingdom.

Given how things are in India, and how the Indian narrative in the global media and the common perception is prominent by its complete absence, it seems that the Indian government needs to get up to speed on the espionage rules from the Mauryan times. Chanakya’s rules are instead being used against India these days. Without any effective counter.

One meets so many Americans who simply lap up the American media narrative without question. And, Modi, as well as “Hindu Nationalists”, are being accepted as villains. This in a country that has an official lobbying act and framework which is used to influence media and politicians.

One instead needs to look at the Chinese operations and its impact. And, that is precisely what we will check today.


Hacking is the new battlefield

Colonial Pipeline Co., which delivers 45% of the gasoline and jet fuel supplied to the U.S. East Coast over a 5,500-mile pipeline has been subject to a ransomware attack.

A ransomware attack led one of the nation’s biggest fuel pipeline operators to shut down its entire network on Friday, according to the company and two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. While it is not expected to have an immediate impact on fuel supply or prices,the attack on Colonial Pipeline, which carries almost half of the gasoline, diesel and other fuels used on the East Coast, underscores the potential vulnerability of industrial sectors to the expanding threat of ransomware strikes. (Source)

This is the largest fuel pipeline in the United States.

As per the US officials, an Eastern European-based criminal gang — DarkSide, is responsible for this ransomware attack. They have attacked other utility companies as well.

The DarkSide group has hit utility firms before, said Allan Liska, intelligence analyst at the cyber threat research firm Recorded Future. In February, ransomware attacks disrupted operations at two Brazilian state-owned electric utility companies, Centrais Eletricas Brasileiras (Eletrobras) and Companhia Paranaense de Energia (Copel), he said. (Source)

This ransomware attack could have an impact on the gas station for US residents.

Gas prices are sensitive to sudden disruptions, and the results of the cyberattack could be felt at the gas pump. Patrick De Haan, the head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, tweeted, "The challenges brought on by the Colonial Pipeline [shutdown] would likely not appear for several days or longer." (Source)

Cyberattacks have been on the rise in recent months. Hackers from Eastern European countries and China have been very active. Just in April 2021, these attacks have been identified. (Complete list here for download - Source)

  1. A hacking group compromised the social media accounts of Polish officials and used them to disseminate narratives critical of NATO. German authorities have reported that the same group has also attempted to compromise members of the Bundestag and state parliament.

  2. Hackers linked to the Chinese military conducted an espionage campaign targeting military and government organizations in Southeast Asia beginning in 2019

  3. Malware triggered an outage for airline reservation systems that caused the networks of 20 low-cost airlines around the world to crash

  4. Russian hackers targeted Ukrainian government officials with spearphishing attempts as tensions between the two nations rose during early 2021

  5. Hackers linked to Palestinian intelligence conducted a cyber espionage campaign compromising approximately 800 Palestinian reporters, activists, and dissidents both in Palestine and more broadly across the Middle East.

  6. Two state-backed hacking groups—one of which works on behalf of the Chinese government—exploited vulnerabilities in a VPN service to target organizations across the U.S. and Europe with a particular focus on U.S. defense contractors.

  7. MI5 warned that over 10,000 UK professionals have been targeted by hostile states over the past five years as part of spearphishing and social engineering campaigns on LinkedIn.

  8. Swedish officials disclosed that the Swedish Sports Confederation was hacked by Russian military intelligence in late 2017 and early 2018 in response to accusations of Russian government-sponsored doping of Russian athletes

  9. French security researchers found that the number of attacks hitting critical French businesses increased fourfold in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  10. The European Commission announced that the EC and multiple other EU organizations were hit by a major cyberattack by unknown hackers

  11. Chinese hackers launched a months-long cyber espionage campaign during the second half of 2020 targeting government agencies in Vietnam with the intent of gathering political intelligence

The SolarWinds hacking case, where Russian intelligence SVR hacked into the software company and got into a backdoor of Orion software update. That the company’s update server was protected by a very sophisticated password - “solarwinds123” - seems to have helped the hackers. (Source)

This was a “supply-chain attack”, since it targets the suppliers of an organization as opposed to the organization itself targeting all of the supplier’s customers.

This attack by the Russian operatives was especially dangerous for the US. The hackers gained access to the email accounts of government officials responsible for identifying foreign threats to US national security. One of them was the acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security apart from other high-level DHS officials. (Source) It was believed that over 250 federal agencies and businesses had been impacted. (Source)

The breach was not identified by the US government but a private cybersecurity firm called FireEye.

Interestingly, Chinese spies also got into the act and exploited SolarWinds to do their own hacking.

The suspected Chinese attackers had access to an unnamed private sector organization as early as 2018. Upon being evicted by incident responders, the hackers broke back into the organization in November 2020 by exploiting SolarWinds softwareaccording to Secureworks. The findings underscore the premium that multiple sets of foreign operatives have apparently put on accessing valuable organizational data held by the SolarWinds Orion network monitoring software. The disclosure comes as U.S. organizations are also coping with another suspected Chinese spying operation that exploits Microsoft Exchange Server software to steal organizations’ emails. (Source)

The Chinese have obviously been spying using other methods.

But hacking is not the only way that other countries, specifically the Chinese, are sabotaging the other nations.

Upping the Propaganda ante - Wolf Warrior approach

In March 2020 strange messages raising panic amongst the readers were coming in on people’s phones.

The text messages have largely followed a pattern: The author claims to have a connection to someone working at a clinic or government agency — an aunt, a neighbor, a friend’s cousin — who has revealed unannounced plans for an impending lockdown or quarantine. They’re passing along a warning, telling recipients of the urgent need to stockpile food, gas, medicine or other necessities. They often contain pleas that they be forwarded to others. And none of them are true. (Source)

The messages urged people to promote the word that Trump would lock down the country and troops were being brought in to prevent looters and rioters. It even cited a “source in Department of Homeland Security” who was asked to be ready.

The origin of these messages - Chinese operatives.

The messages became so widespread over 48 hours that the White House’s National Security Council issued an announcement via Twitter that they were “FAKE.” Since that wave of panic, United States intelligence agencies have assessed that Chinese operatives helped push the messages across platforms, according to six American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to publicly discuss intelligence matters. The amplification techniques are alarming to officials because the disinformation showed up as texts on many Americans’ cellphones, a tactic that several of the officials said they had not seen before. That has spurred agencies to look at new ways in which China, Russia and other nations are using a range of platforms to spread disinformation during the pandemic, they said. (Source)

Interestingly, in recent years Chinese agencies’ propaganda operations - the disclosed ones - in the United States have increased six times!

As per the Center for Responsive Politics, Chinese foreign agent spending has risen from a little over $10 million in 2016 to nearly $64 million last year!

US has made espionage and propaganda operations within the US very formal and official. The foreign agents need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as they lobby in US.

Since 2016, the agents working on behalf of foreign interests have spent $2,589,834,997 (2.5 bn) since 2016.

In 2020, the top 10 spending countries were:

The Marshall Islands are the ones where US had conducted nuke tests in the 1940s and 50s and ruined the lives of its inhabitants. The US ostensibly provides aid to these islands. It is interesting that so much of (aid?) money is pumped into the US lobbying machinery!

But, the major investors in the US lobbying structure are China, Qatar, and Russia.

The unusual increase in Chinese propaganda in the US, has been accompanied global by what is being termed as “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”. Recently the Chinese foreign ministry has taken an increasingly strident tone against the United States, Australia, and other countries. Dubbed “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” this new approach seems popular inside China and reinforces a presumed transition of Chinese diplomacy from conservative, passive, and low-key to assertive, proactive, and high-profile. (Source)

Earlier this year in March, the Sino-American summit in Anchorage, Alaska saw a very belligerent China. The Secretary of State Antony Blinken opened his remarks by asking the Chinese government to follow a rules-based system and criticized China for violating the international norms - with the crackdown on Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, cyber attacks against the U.S. and “economic coercion.”

Unlike other situations, the Chinese were in no mood for a lecture. They instead asked the US to improve its record on human rights.

"China is firmly opposed to U.S. interference in China's internal affairs. We have expressed our staunch opposition to such interference, and we will take firm actions in response of human rights. We hope that the United States will do better on human rights,” he said, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. “China has made steady progress in human rights." (Source)

Some believe that this kind of Chinese diplomatic avatar may be because of newfound confidence and also the urge for the different diplomats around the world to suck up to Xi Jinping’s central leadership. (Source)

Chinese diplomats like Liu Xiaoming (Source), who stepped down from the ambassador position in the United Kingdom is one of the most vocal social media “wolf warrior”. He is now a Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Korean Peninsula Affairs. He now has over 199k followers on Twitter.

He hits back at the “Western anti-Chinese bias) with strong ripostes. His posts have been retweeted over 43000 times from June 2020 to February 2021 alone. More than half of these RTs came from accounts that Twitter has suspended for violating the platform’s rules. In fact, over 10% of the RTs that the 189 Chinese Diplomats received were from the suspended accounts!

China’s Twitter army is very focused and aggressive.

A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, found that China's rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people -- often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored. (Source)

The suspensions from Twitter may have been for anti-West accounts, but the pro-China propaganda accounts are thriving.

An additional cluster of fake accounts, many of them impersonating U.K. citizens, continued to push Chinese government content, racking up over 16,000 retweets and replies before Twitter kicked them off late last month and early this month, in response to the AP and Oxford Internet Institute’s investigation. (Source)

Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership understand how important social media and propaganda’s influence is on China’s national security.

The move onto Western social media comes as China wages a war for influence – both at home and abroad -- on the internet, which President Xi Jinping has called “the main battlefield” for public opinion. “On the battlefield of the Internet, whether we can withstand and win is directly related to our country’s ideological security and political security,” he said in 2013, not long after taking power. In September 2019, as Chinese diplomats flocked to Twitter, Xi gave another speech, urging party cadres to strengthen their “fighting spirit.” (Source)

A message that India’s government leadership ought to have taken from Xi Jinping long back!

The shift in public opinion may not happen at once or in one stroke. But little shifts over time add up to a massive change in public opinions.

market corner: 10 quick bytes

  1. Construction sector’s 2021 profitability twice of what earned at peak of the housing bubble in 2005 - more

  2. One AstraZeneca Covid vaccine dose gives 80% lower death risk - more

  3. Flipkart to add 8 lakh sq ft warehousing space to strengthen grocery infrastructure - more

  4. Groww to buy Indiabulls' mutual fund business for Rs 175 crore - more

  5. India contracts for 56 lakh tonne sugar export; to conclude deals for rest 4 lakh tonne soon - more

  6. Government disburses 42% more money to wheat farmers this year - more

  7. India's 8 poorest states may spend 30% of health budget on Covid vaccination - more

  8. Indian cold chain logistics likely to grow 20% annually by 2025 - more

  9. Debt mutual funds witness Rs 100,903 cr net inflows in April - more

  10. Foxconn iPhone India output drops 50% amid COVID surge - more

nota bene

India COVID impact on GAVI: Gavi, or Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, has said the current Covid crisis in India has had a "knock-on effect" on vaccine needs to the other parts of the world and expressed an understanding that it is "clear that Indian vaccine production" will be "committed to protecting its own citizens." (Source)

Gates and his Wild Naked Parties: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has been making headlines ever since he announced that he is getting a divorce from his wife Melinda Gates after 27 years of marriage. Now, in another shocking revelation, journalist James Wallace who authored two books about Gates during the 1990s, has accused Gates of being a ‘womanizer’ since his early years. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Wallace said that the billionaire was far more than just “a little computer nerd”. He claimed that Bill Gates held “wild” naked parties with strippers in his bachelor days. “Gates was no choir boy in his early days as a tech founder”, Wallace said in an interview with the British newspaper, furthering that Gates’ ‘womanizing’ wasn’t even curtailed when he began dating his now-estranged wife Melinda Gates, which ultimately led to their divorce. (Source)

China Wolf Warrior: China has threatened Bangladesh with repercussions if it considered any sort of participation in the Indo-Pacific Quad, warning that it will lead to a degrading of ties, a report published by the Times of India said. Chinese Ambassador to Dhaka Li Jiming said that the bilateral ties between the two countries will be “substantially damaged” if the country engages with the four-nation grouping of biggest naval powers in the region, the United States, India, Australia, and Japan. (Source)

COVID impact of Catholic Schools: Catholic schools across the country are struggling to keep the doors open, after a pandemic year that left many families unable to pay tuition and the church without extra funds to cover the difference. At least 209 of the country’s nearly 6,000 Catholic schools have closed over the past year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. More closures are expected this summer, and some schools have taken to GoFundMe in an effort to stay open. Nationwide, Catholic school enrollment fell 6.4% at the start of this school year, the largest single-year decline since the NCEA began tracking such data in the 1970s. (Source)

video corner:  Wootz Steel

There was a special steel that India produced. Wootz Steel. It was crucible steel characterized by a pattern of bands and high carbon content. These bands are formed by sheets of microscopic carbides within a tempered martensite or pearlite matrix in higher carbon steel, or by ferrite and pearlite banding in lower carbon steels. It was a pioneering steel alloy invented in Southern India (Tamil Nadu) in the mid-1st millennium BC and exported globally. This was the metal that was used to fashion weapons such as the famous Damascus blades of the Middle Ages.

This documentary takes us through details on Wootz steel.

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