China gets blamed for global email hacking. Indonesia struggles to cope as Covid-19 numbers worsen. By Jonathan Pearlman.

England parties like it’s 1999

Patrons at Egg London nightclub celebrate in the early hours of July 19 after most of England’s Covid-19 social restrictions were removed.
Patrons at Egg London nightclub celebrate in the early hours of July 19 after most of England’s Covid-19 social restrictions were removed.
Credit: Rob Pinney / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

China: On February 28, Microsoft Exchange email servers used by about 30,000 organisations around the world – including businesses, universities, government agencies and think tanks – were infiltrated by a gang of hackers. For three days, until Microsoft discovered the breach and released emergency security updates, the hackers had access to usernames, passwords, contact, emails, calendars and other confidential data.

Authorities in various countries admitted they were investigating the hack but refused to identify the state believed to be behind it.

On Monday, the United States publicly blamed China, saying China’s Ministry of State Security had supported and worked with networks of hackers who had acted for both state-sponsored purposes and their own financial gain. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said China had engaged in a “pattern of irresponsible, disruptive and destabilising behaviour in cyberspace”.

The US was joined in its open condemnation of China by various allies, including the European Union, NATO, Japan, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Previously, countries such as Australia have been reluctant to accuse China of suspected attacks. But intelligence agencies are reportedly concerned China’s cyber attacks are becoming more intrusive. The Microsoft hackers apparently became aware that Microsoft planned to fix the breach and quickly enabled other Chinese hackers to access the servers.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, denied responsibility for the attack this week. He accused the US of orchestrating a “smear and suppression with political motives”.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: On Tuesday, Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, extended Covid-19 restrictions as the nation recorded the world’s highest number of new cases. The surging outbreak has been blamed on a lack of testing and low vaccination rates, as well as a reluctance by Widodo and other political leaders to impose restrictions due to concerns about the economic and social impacts.

On Monday, 34,257 new cases were recorded, down from a peak of almost 57,000 four days earlier. The number of deaths on Monday – 1338 – was a national record. About three million people, from a population of 270 million residents, have been infected, though actual numbers are believed to be much higher.

More than a quarter of tests are returning as positive, which is one of the highest rates in the world. About 16 per cent of residents are fully vaccinated.

Hospitals and medical services have struggled to cope with the latest outbreak and have been turning people away. In some cities, volunteers have been helping to collect and bury bodies of victims who died at home.

The current restrictions, which include closures of shopping malls, travel curbs and bans on large gatherings, have been extended until Sunday. Widodo said restrictions will then be eased if infection numbers continue to fall. Health experts have urged him to keep the measures in place.

Democracy in retreat

Israel: The NSO Group, an Israeli cyber-surveillance company, develops technology that enables law enforcement and intelligence agencies to – according to its website – track and arrest “terrorists, drug traffickers, paedophiles, and other criminals”.

The firm’s products include a sophisticated surveillance application, known as Pegasus, that can reportedly be used to gain access to a mobile phone without any action by the phone’s owner.

According to leaked data obtained by French journalism non-profit organisation, Forbidden Stories, and Amnesty International, Pegasus is also being used by governments and authoritarian regimes around the world to target journalists, dissidents, activists and opposition politicians.

The leaked data included more than 50,000 phone numbers believed to be potential targets of governments that purchased Pegasus or other similar products.

Countries alleged to have used Pegasus include India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Hungary, United Arab Emirates, Rwanda and Morocco.Fourteen heads of state appeared on the list, including France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who was reportedly selected as a person of interest by Morocco, and Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, who was of interest to India.

Others included journalists from CNN, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and both the wife and fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was murdered in Istanbul in 2018 by Saudi operatives. Not all the phone numbers on the leaked list were hacked or targeted.

The leak led to recriminations around the world, as political leaders were accused of attempting to spy on opponents.

In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was accused of targeting Rahul Gandhi, former head of the opposition Congress party. Congress accused the prime minister, Narendra Modi, of treason, saying he had exercised a “spying racket”. The Modi government denied the claims.

NSO said it only sells products to “vetted governments” and has no access to data collected by its customers.

Spotlight: Boris’s Freedom Day

Britain: England abandoned most of its Covid-19 restrictions this week and celebrated “Freedom Day”, but the festivities were marred by various setbacks, including a fast-spreading outbreak of the Delta strain.

On Monday, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, pushed ahead with his controversial move to end indoor mask-wearing and capacity limits for gatherings and indoor venues, saying the public needed to “live with the virus”. He said he hoped high vaccination rates – about 54 per cent of British residents have had two doses – would provide a “wall of immunity”.

At a reopened nightclub in London, 26-year-old Gary Cartmill told Reuters: “I am so excited – but it’s mixed with the sense of impending doom.”

Johnson was unable to attend the celebrations. He was forced to quarantine after a new contact-tracing app showed he had been in contact with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who revealed he had Covid-19 despite being fully vaccinated.

The app, run by the National Health Service, alerts Covid-19 contacts who must then isolate. It quickly sent hundreds of thousands of people into isolation, sparking a so-called “pingdemic” that caused staff shortages in shops and led to the closure of Underground lines after multiple rail workers were pinged.

Health experts have warned that the removal of restrictions could lead to a surge in cases and new strains of the virus.

On Tuesday, Britain recorded 46,668 new cases of Covid-19 and 102 deaths. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 24, 2021 as "England parties like it’s 1999".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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