In Other News: Cyberattacks, Latin American Unrest & More – March 11, 2021

March 11, 2021

Two high-profile cyberattacks on U.S. entities made headlines this week – one by China and one by “hacktivists – exposing widespread vulnerabilities in U.S. cyber infrastructure. News reports surfaced last weekend of a targeted Chinese cyberattack on tens of thousands of servers using Microsoft Exchange, as well as an indiscriminate, automated second wave of hacks that began on February 26 that installed backdoors vulnerable to future ransomware attacks. Days later, an international group of activist hackers announced it had accessed the feeds of nearly 150,000 security cameras through a breach of camera provider Verkada to call attention to the security vulnerabilities associated with widespread surveillance technologies. Among the more than 24,000 affected entities were facilities critical to daily life – schools, banks, offices, jails – as well as factories and warehouses belonging to electric automaker Tesla. Some of the security systems in question also use facial recognition technology, which has drawn criticism for its use or suspected use for the purposes of political and religious repression (including use by China to track members of the Muslim Uighur minority). Hackers said that in addition to live feeds, they were also able to access archived video, as well as Verkada customer lists and balance sheets. The security and privacy implications of a breach like this are staggering, and coming on the heels of high-profile, state-sponsored cyberattacks on U.S. entities, highlight the urgency of U.S. efforts to shore up our cyber defenses.

Latin America continues to face crisis and unrest due to the pandemic, economic losses, and inequitable distribution of the vaccine. Paraguay is the latest example of a country with surging Covid-19 cases and an inadequate government response. Over the last week, ordinary Paraguayans have protested against President Mario Abdo Benítez for his handling of the public health crisis. A shortage of drugs and doctors, medical supplies, and vaccines have pushed people to the streets in outrage. Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have included the use of teargas and rubber bullets by security forces. Meanwhile, health ministers across the region have been forced out of office in the midst of growing public criticism of the vaccination rollout in their countries. These include the health ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru – all ousted due to ineffective pandemic responses and VIP vaccinations that enable the rich and connected to jump the queue for shots in short supply. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought many uncomfortable truths about Latin America to the fore, including the lack of economic diversification and opportunity, the yawning gap between the wealthy and the poor, the lack of capacity on the part of Latin American governments to provide basic healthcare, and the endemic corruption and graft which allows those in positions of power to advance at the expense of the public good.

The US has announced new sanctions on Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky for corruption, saying he poses an ongoing risk to Ukraine’s democratic process and institutions, as part of a broader anti-corruption policy agenda in the country. The sanctions bar Kolomoisky and his family from traveling to the U.S. but do not affect his financial assets. However, the Department of Justice has accused Kolomoisky of misappropriating funds from Ukraine’s PrivatBank and using them to purchase real estate properties in Kentucky, Texas, and Ohio in a loan scheme that ultimately defrauded PrivatBank of billions of dollars. Kolomoisky is a former owner of PrivatBank, which collapsed in 2016 and was rescued (and nationalized) with a $5.5 bailout package that included US and EU aid funding. Though Kolomoisky no longer serves as a government official in Ukraine, he is the former governor of Dnipropetrovsk Region (Oblast) and, as a leading figure in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and member of Ukraine’s powerful oligarch class, maintains a significant degree of influence at the highest levels of the Ukrainian political system. Zelensky responded to the U.S. move with a statement calling for weakening the oligarchs’ dominant position in the country’s markets, media, and politics, and it is clear he will have the U.S.’s backing for moving in that direction. However, Kolomoisky’s response to increased U.S. scrutiny was to seek closer relations to Moscow, a move that other oligarchs may emulate if and when they find themselves in the crosshairs. Should Zelensky press ahead with this U.S.-backed initiative, both Ukraine and the U.S. should be prepared for a Kremlin counteroffensive.