China hacks Vatican ahead of negotiations to extend secret Vatican/China deal: report
ROME, Italy, July 30, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A group of cybersecurity experts has found out that Chinese hackers, likely on behalf of the communist Chinese government, have spied on the Vatican for months. The breach in security was discovered ahead of negotiations to extend the controversial secret deal between the Vatican and China on the nomination of bishops.
“From early May 2020, [t]he Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong were among several Catholic Church-related organizations that were targeted by RedDelta, a Chinese-state sponsored threat activity group,” reported Recorded Future, a U.S.-based cybersecurity company.
Recorded Future was founded in 2009, aiming to predict future events by looking at data found online. The company “monitors tens of thousands of websites, blogs and Twitter accounts in real time in order to find patterns, events and relationships that may predict the future,” explained Juan Gonzalez for Democracy Now! in 2010.
According to the 21-page report on China and the Vatican released on Tuesday, “This series of suspected network intrusions also targeted the Hong Kong Study Mission to China and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), Italy. These organizations have not been publicly reported as targets of Chinese threat activity groups prior to this campaign.”
“These network intrusions occured [sic] ahead of the anticipated September 2020 renewal of the landmark 2018 China-Vatican provisional agreement, a deal which reportedly resulted in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gaining more control and oversight over the country’s historically persecuted ‘underground’ Catholic community,” Recorded Future stated.
“In addition to the Holy See itself, another likely target of the campaign includes the current head of the Hong Kong Study Mission to China [Javier Herrera Corona], whose predecessor [Ante Jozić] was considered to have played a vital role in the 2018 agreement.”
The cybersecurity experts also speculated on what China could have gained by hacking the Vatican and various other Catholic institutions.
“The suspected intrusion into the Vatican would offer RedDelta insight into the negotiating position of the Holy See ahead of the deal’s September 2020 renewal,” according to Recorded Future. “The targeting of the Hong Kong Study Mission and its Catholic Diocese could also provide a valuable intelligence source for both monitoring the diocese’s relations with the Vatican and its position on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement amidst widespread protests and the recent sweeping Hong Kong national security law.”
Recorded Future’s detailed and very technical report came away with the judgment that targeting Catholic institutions “is likely indicative of CCP objectives in consolidating control over the ‘underground’ Catholic church, ‘sinicizing religions’ in China, and diminishing the perceived influence of the Vatican within China’s Catholic community.”
Additionally, although not able to say this with absolute certainty, Recorded Future believes that the group of hackers “likely operates on behalf of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government.”
The Chinese government is using the internet not only for hacking attacks on Catholic institutions. It is also known to use digital technology – partly made by American companies – to target and repress religious groups more than ever before, as explained by foreign policy expert Chris Meserole during a hearing of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom last Wednesday.
While religious persecution has always been a part of communist China, new technologies have made “that repression far more effective,” said Meserole, who works with the Brookings Institution and teaches at Georgetown University.
He explained that formerly, the government was generally only able to “to repress public forms of religious organizations, practices, identities, and beliefs, particularly in urban areas.” Religion practiced privately at home, on the other hand, was relatively safe.
“Digital technologies have changed that,” argued Meserole. “As processors, sensors, and cameras have proliferated, the extent of religious life that the CCP can surveil has expanded dramatically.”
“Video and audio surveillance of public mosques, churches, and temples has exploded,” he pointed out. “Rather than simply shut down a religious school or house of worship, authorities can monitor all activity and individuals within those facilities and sanction undesired behavior or individuals with greater specificity.”
In fact, Meserole said, the government recently shut down a church in Beijing for refusing to install video surveillance equipment in the building.
Digital technologies also help the government to target underground religious organizations and networks, he continued. “From video feeds to GPS tracking, authorities have greater ability to detect religious groups that meet and operate covertly.”
“In Xinjiang, for instance, smartphone location data, vehicle location data, checkpoint logs, facial recognition technology, and video feeds from buses, streets, and drones, can be used to identify when individuals in the same religious network meet together covertly, potentially even in real-time.”
A report by the U.S. government released in January 2020 found that the “intensity” of religious persecution, which has not been seen “since the Cultural Revolution,” was linked to the Vatican signing a secret deal with the Chinese communist government to give the government more power over the Church in the country.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, is the most outspoken critic of the Vatican’s China deal. Already in early 2018, he said, “It’s obvious. They are delivering the whole administration of the Church into the hands of the so-called ‘Patriotic Association,’ which is just a puppet in the hands of the government. And so it’s a complete surrender. It’s incredible.”