London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company

London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company
School of Oriental & African Studies, London. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Updated 13 July 2021

London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company

London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company
  • They impersonated academics at School of Oriental and African Studies to harvest info
  • Expert: ‘Iran has always been very focused on (compromising) academics, scientists, professors, diplomats’

LONDON: A cybersecurity company has accused Iranian hackers of impersonating academics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to target Middle East experts.

Proofpoint said the intrusions were launched by the Charming Kitten group, which is also known as Phosphorus and APT35. 

The outfit is believed to regularly conduct hacking attempts for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s asymmetric warfare force. 

The move comes amid heightened concern in Britain over cyberattacks from hostile states. Lindy Cameron, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), recently warned that Tehran is seeking to use cyber strategies to “sabotage and steal” from UK institutions. 

NCSC reports have detailed the specific risk from Iranian cyberespionage on UK universities. Its warnings were highlighted following Tehran’s efforts in 2018 to gather personal details from university staff by duping them with phony websites.

The NCSC said it is aware of this latest attack by the Iranian outfit. The attack saw hackers impersonating SOAS academics in fake emails, asking professors, journalists and other Middle East experts to attend conferences and discussions. 

After conversing and gaining their trust, the Iranian hacking group sent the experts to a spoof web page that they had added to an independent radio station based at SOAS. 

The page invited the experts to submit their personal details, including a password, to access the fake events.

Details harvested by the cyber operation were then used to access other sites, such as the experts’ email accounts. 

Proofpoint said the Iranian group may have also used mobile numbers gathered at the site to infect phones with malware.

It said it knew of around a dozen experts who were targeted, most of them based in Britain and the US.

The operation proved that state-sponsored hackers “are really back in the seat,” said Sherrod DeGrippo, Proofpoint’s senior director of threat research.

“Iran has always been very focused on (compromising) academics, scientists, professors and diplomats. This just shows that they’re continuing that focus, most likely because it’s been paying off.” 

Proofpoint, in a report released on Tuesday, said the group is gathering information regarding geopolitics and foreign policy, especially on Iranian dissidents’ behavior.

SOAS said no personal information from its systems had been breached during the cyberattack.

“Once we became aware of the dummy site … we immediately remedied and reported the breach in the normal way,” it added. SOAS said it had “taken steps to further improve protection of (its) peripheral systems.”


Trial of first COVID-19 variant-proof jab begins in UK

Trial of first COVID-19 variant-proof jab begins in UK
Updated 17 sec ago

Trial of first COVID-19 variant-proof jab begins in UK

Trial of first COVID-19 variant-proof jab begins in UK
  • US firm Grimstone hopes new mRNA vaccine will eliminate need for regular updates
  • Study of people over 60 held in conjunction with Manchester University, local NHS trust

London: A new coronavirus booster vaccine, the first said to be variant-proof, is being trialed in Manchester in the UK.

The mRNA vaccine, known as GRT-R910, could eliminate the need for COVID-19 vaccines to be constantly updated to counter emerging strains of the disease. 

The first subjects of the booster trial — retired couple Andrew Clarke, 63, and his wife Helen, a 64-year-old former nurse — received their jabs on Monday.

Another 20 volunteers, all over the age of 60 — constituting the most vulnerable cohort of the population — will also receive the jab. Further trials in other vulnerable demographics are also planned.

Scientists at US pharmaceutical company Gritstone, working with the University of Manchester and Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, will study dosages, tolerability, immunogenicity and side effects over four months following initial administration. They hope for results by early 2022.

“We now know the immune response to first generation vaccines can wane, particularly in older people,” said Prof. Andrew Ustianowski, the study’s chief investigator at the University of Manchester.

“Coupled with the prevalence of emerging variants, there is a clear need for continued vigilance to keep COVID-19 at bay,” he added.

“We think GRT-R910 as a booster vaccination will elicit strong, durable and broad immune responses, which are likely to be critical in maintaining protection of this vulnerable elderly population who are particularly at risk of hospitalization and death.”


Melbourne police fire pepper balls, pellets to break up COVID-19 protest

Melbourne police fire pepper balls, pellets to break up COVID-19 protest
Updated 39 min 6 sec ago

Melbourne police fire pepper balls, pellets to break up COVID-19 protest

Melbourne police fire pepper balls, pellets to break up COVID-19 protest
  • During eight hours of downtown protests, demonstrators threw rocks, bottles and flares at police
  • The tough curbs have triggered anti-lockdown rallies with police arresting hundreds

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE: Police in Melbourne fired pepper balls and rubber pellets on Tuesday to disperse about 2,000 protesters who defied stay-at- home orders to damage property, block a busy freeway and injure three officers, leading to more than 60 arrests.
It was the second day of demonstrations in the locked-down Australian city after authorities shut construction sites for two weeks, saying workers’ frequent movement was spreading the coronavirus.
During eight hours of downtown protests, demonstrators threw rocks, bottles and flares at police, as television and social media showed video of marchers chanting and attacking police cars, surrounded by mounted police and officers in riot gear.
“This was a very, very large and very, very angry group,” Shane Patton, police commissioner in the southeastern state of Victoria, told reporters, adding that the protest breached COVID-19 lockdown rules.
“And it was a challenging and confronting environment,” he added, urging people to stay away on Wednesday.
Protesters included not only construction workers but opponents of mandatory vaccinations and Victoria’s extended lockdown, who cursed the jab, state premier Dan Andrews and the workers’ union leader, who had backed vaccination for members.
“Acts of violence and disruption won’t result in one less case of COVID — in fact it only helps the virus to spread,” Andrews said in a statement.
The halt in building activities followed a protest against a vaccine mandate that turned violent on Monday. The state requires all construction workers to receive at least one vaccine dose by the end of this week.
“The public health team was left with no choice but to hit the pause button and continue to work with the sector over the next two weeks to improve compliance,” state Health Minister Martin Foley told reporters.
The forced closures of building sites will worsen Australia’s economic woes, with some economists forecasting the extended lockdowns could push the A$2 trillion ($1.45 trillion) economy into a second recession in as many years.
Australia has locked down its largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the capital, Canberra, to rein in an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant.
But the tough curbs have triggered anti-lockdown rallies with police arresting hundreds in both cities over the weekend.
Tuesday’s 603 new infections in Victoria were the highest daily figure this year, with one new death was recorded.
Authorities have begun to ease some strictures on outdoor gatherings and exercise in Sydney and Melbourne as vaccination rates rise, with more freedom promised once 70 percent to 80 percent of adults in the population have received both vaccine doses.
Until now, 53 percent have been fully vaccinated in the state of New South Wales, home to Sydney, while in Victoria the coverage is 44 percent.
New South Wales reported 1,022 new infections, the majority in Sydney, its capital, up from Monday’s figure of 935, and 10 deaths.
Even with the Delta outbreaks, Australia’s COVID-19 infections are lower than many comparable nations, with 88,700 cases and 1,178 deaths.


Taliban name deputy ministers, double down on all-male team

Taliban name deputy ministers, double down on all-male team
Updated 21 September 2021

Taliban name deputy ministers, double down on all-male team

Taliban name deputy ministers, double down on all-male team
  • Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid says that women might be added later

KABUL: The Taliban expanded their interim Cabinet by naming deputy ministers Tuesday, but failed to appoint any women, doubling down on a hard-line course despite the international outcry that followed their initial presentation of an all-male Cabinet lineup earlier this month.

The international community has warned that it will judge the Taliban by their actions, and that recognition of a Taliban-led government would be linked to the treatment of women and minorities. In their previous rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the Taliban had barred girls and women from schools, work and public life.

Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid defended the latest additions to the Cabinet at a news conference Tuesday, saying it included members of ethnic minorities, such as the Hazaras, and that women might be added later.

Mujahid bristled at international conditions for recognition, saying there was no reason for withholding it. “It is the responsibility of the United Nations to recognize our government (and) for other countries, including European, Asian and Islamic countries, to have diplomatic relations with us,” he said.

He also said that the Taliban has funds to pay government salaries ‘but needs time.’

The Taliban have framed their current Cabinet as an interim government, suggesting that change was still possible, but they have not said if there would ever be elections.

Mujahid was also asked about the recent restrictions imposed on girls and women, including a decision not to allow girls in grades six to 12 to return to classrooms for the time being.

Mujahid suggested this was a temporary decision, and that “soon it will be announced when they can go to school.” He said plans were being made to allow for their return, but did not elaborate.

Boys in grades six to 12 resumed their studies over the weekend.


Calls grow among experts in Singapore for a vaccine mandate as COVID-19 spikes

Calls grow among experts in Singapore for a vaccine mandate as COVID-19 spikes
Updated 21 September 2021

Calls grow among experts in Singapore for a vaccine mandate as COVID-19 spikes

Calls grow among experts in Singapore for a vaccine mandate as COVID-19 spikes
  • Singapore has been a model for coronavirus mitigation since the pandemic began with mandatory masks, effective contact tracing and a closed border
  • Singapore has not made vaccination compulsory because the Pfizer and Moderna shots only have emergency approval in the country

SINGAPORE: Some health experts in Singapore are calling for mandatory vaccination against the coronavirus with a growing toll of severe COVID-19 among unvaccinated people as infections surge and with vaccine take-up plateauing at 82 percent of the population.
The government has linked reopening to vaccination targets but it paused the easing of restrictions this month to watch for signs that severe infections could overwhelm the health system.
“I would love to see vaccine mandates in over 60s, they are the group most likely to die,” said Dale Fisher, an infectious disease expert at the National University Hospital in Singapore.
“It’s the same reason that age group was selected early for vaccines, the same reason that age group has been selected for booster jabs.”
Singapore has been a model for coronavirus mitigation since the pandemic began with mandatory masks, effective contact tracing and a closed border.
In all, 62 of its 5.7 million people have died and new daily infections were for months no more than a handful.
But, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Delta variant has in recent months been spreading and new daily cases have risen to about 1,000.
Several countries including the United States, France and Italy have announced mandatory vaccination programs, concerned the Delta variant and a slowdown in vaccinations will thwart plans to get back to normal.
Of vaccinated people in Singapore who caught the virus from May 1 to Sept. 16, only 0.09 percent of them had to go into intensive care or died. The rate for the unvaccinated was 1.7 percent.
Data for the elderly is particularly striking.
Of infected unvaccinated people aged 80 or older, 15 percent of them had to be treated in intensive care or died. Only 1.79 percent of the vaccinated in that age group needed intensive care or died.
Singapore has not made vaccination compulsory because the Pfizer and Moderna shots only have emergency approval in the country although it has limited activities such as eating out for the unvaccinated.
Neither company responded to a query on whether it had applied for full approval in Singapore.
With about 87,000 seniors still unvaccinated, some experts say full approval could pave the way for a mandate.
“Vaccination is much more protective than the other measures we have in place, and less economically and socially damaging,” said Alex Cook, an infectious disease modelling expert at the National University of Singapore.
“If we are not to enforce vaccination, it seems odd to enforce weaker and more costly measures.”
The number of patients requiring oxygen support or intensive care jumped more than five-fold this month to 146, including 18 in ICU.
The government is worried the numbers in ICU could grow quickly on an exponentially rising base of infected people, especially if they are elderly and unvaccinated.
Singapore has about 100 ICU beds for COVID-19 patients, and it can increase that to nearly 300 at short notice.
A vaccine mandate could take the form of curtailing activities for unvaccinated people related to their work, leisure and use of public transport, said infectious diseases doctor Leong Hoe Nam.
“You cannot go to the malls or take public transport or eat out unless vaccinated,” he said, giving examples of possible restrictions.
Only vaccinations against diphtheria and measles are mandated by law in Singapore.
The government has been offering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for free and it has also approved payouts to 144 people who suffered serious side effects, media reported.
Singapore has a long record of imposing rules, including a famous 1992 ban on the sale of chewing gum to prevent littering, but nevertheless compulsory vaccines would be a significant step.
“It will take political courage, there’s no doubt about that, but the science would say you will save hundreds of lives if you vaccinate the last 100,000 seniors,” said Fisher.


Pakistan says no rush to recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban government

Pakistan says no rush to recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban government
Updated 21 September 2021

Pakistan says no rush to recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban government

Pakistan says no rush to recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban government
  • Pakistan’s main envoy expresses hope the Taliban live up to their promise ‘that girls and women would be allowed to go to school, college and university’

UNITED NATIONS: Pakistan’s foreign minister says Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers should understand that if they want recognition and assistance in rebuilding the war-battered country “they have to be more sensitive and more receptive to international opinion and norms.”
Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Monday evening that countries are watching to see how things evolve in Afghanistan before considering recognition. He says, “I don’t think anyone is in a rush to recognize at this stage.”
The Pakistani minister says his country’s objective is peace and stability in Afghanistan and to achieve that “we would suggest to Afghans that they should have an inclusive government.” He says their initial statements indicate they aren’t averse to the idea, so “let’s see.”
Qureshi expresses hope the Taliban live up to their promise “that girls and women would be allowed to go to school, college and university.”
Qureshi strongly urges the United States and other countries that have frozen money from the former Afghan government to release it because “that’s Afghan money that should be spent on Afghan people.”