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  • Writer's pictureOrina Ontiri

Unlikely threats . . . and successes

Although not known for its coding prowess, Ethiopia has long employed cyberattacks for political leverage. In 2015, amid protests, casualties and an eventual state of emergency, investigators discovered that the East African country was using spyware to snoop on journalists and advocates of the Oromo ethnic group in 20 countries. Provided to the Ethiopian government by the Israel-based defense outfit Elbit Systems Ltd., the malware could take screenshots, record passwords and operate a computer’s camera to record conversations held by targeted subjects, which included Ph.D. and law school students.

2. Macedonian Backfire

Government hacks can have unintended benefits too — like exposing and bringing down a corrupt ruling party that has held power for decades. At least that was how events unfolded in this small Balkan country after the Macedonian opposition party revealed the Administration for Security and Counterintelligence had been using illegal widespread internet surveillance against its citizens. Journalists, nongovernmental organizations and politicians from all parties were targeted by sophisticated software, which recorded 560,646 telephone conversations on topics ranging from government-instigated violence against demonstrators to financial crimes that had decimated the state budget.

3. Estonia

This northeastern European country is a world leader in cybersecurity and has developed training exercises used by the governments of Austria and Luxembourg, as well as NATO. The small former Soviet republic is perhaps more code-savvy than you’d expect. It even has an e-government infrastructure in place that emphasizes reliable digital identity and a mandatory security baseline for all government authorities. Estonia’s excess of cyber caution came after it faced what experts deemed the world’s first cyberwar in 2007. Part of the nation’s innovative recovery included setting up a unit of cyber volunteers — citizen hackers — to protect Estonian cyberspace. Now, the country of 1.3 million people is on its third national cybersecurity strategy, refining its tricks of the trade as the years go by.

4. Murky Waters

Water treatment plants have become a new favorite target for hackers. In early 2021, hackers tried to modify chlorine levels at a treatment plant in Florida, an effort that could have poisoned an entire town of about 14,000 if not for the watchful eye of a local supervisor who noticed that an outsider had taken control of his cursor and ramped up sodium hydroxide levels a hundredfold. Similar attacks in Israel were foiled twice last year. These breaches highlight endemic failures in the water sector’s cybersecurity, and could mark a new frontier for cyberattacks.

5. Bitcoin’s Rocky Start

Before Bitcoin became a mainstay on Wall Street, hacks targeting the cryptocurrency were hardly uncommon. In 2014, the Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, which handled about 75 percent of all Bitcoin transactions, was hacked, resulting in the loss of 850,000 coins — a tally worth approximately $47 billion at current Bitcoin valuations. The subsequent collapse of the exchange almost killed Bitcoin, as the currency lost some 80 percent of its value. But while rival exchanges saw massive sell orders, the dominant cryptocurrency has rebounded, reaching new highs in the past year.


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