China gives hackers its blessing to break into Vatican e-mails

Bloomberg September 16 | Updated on September 16, 2020 Published on September 16, 2020

Incursions by RedDelta had ceased after being disclosed by US-based security specialist Recorded Future; later they resumed

Hackers alleged to be backed by China have renewed efforts to penetrate a Vatican email server even after the attacks became public, in a push to spy on sensitive negotiations between the two states, a new cybersecurity report says.

The incursions by the group RedDelta, which began in May, had ceased after they were disclosed in a July 28 report by US-based security specialist Recorded Future. The attacks have now recommenced, targeting servers of the Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the monitoring group said in a new report on Tuesday.

RedDelta hackers operate in line with Chinese strategic priorities and have used decoy documents focusing on issues such as Catholicism in China in a manner consistent with cyber-espionage operations, the new report said.

Also read: The lure of surveillance

The Vatican is close to renewing a historic agreement with China on the appointment of bishops in the country, first signed in September 2018, as the two states inch toward restoring diplomatic relations after almost 70 years.

Relations between the Vatican and China were broken off in 1951 and a settlement with the Communist Party has proved elusive, especially as President Xi Jinping presides over the most widespread crackdown on religious freedom since it was written into the country’s constitution in 1982.

Chinese authorities have jailed Catholic priests, demolished places of worship and detained hundreds of thousands of Muslim ethnic Uyghurs in so-called re-education camps.

Taiwan ties

Any move by the Vatican toward rapprochement with Beijing would be highly sensitive, especially since one of China’s goals is for the papal state to cut ties with Taiwan.

“Both the Vatican and China intend to renew the agreement on bishops, which runs out in October,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, told reporters at a Rome event on Monday.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any involvement in the cyber attacks following the publication of the July report, calling it groundless speculation.

RedDelta took basic operational security measures after its attempts became public, then restarted its attacks within two weeks, the new report said. The targeting of the Vatican network died down in early September, a week before Beijing said that the accord on bishops had been smoothly implemented over the past two years.

It’s unclear whether the hacking group successfully regained access to the Vatican network after late July, the new report said.

RedDelta’s attempts to again infiltrate the Vatican network, as well as the emergence of decoy documents, highlight the Chinese Communist Party’s focus on gaining increased oversight of the Catholic community within China, the new report said.

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Published on September 16, 2020
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