China and Russia are using the pandemic to increase their authority in new ways at home and abroad, Lithuanian intelligence services have warned.
But old-fashioned spy-craft, such as ‘honey traps’, also pose a threat to EU citizens from hostile services, despite virus-linked travel restrictions.
Beijing and Moscow have both “abused” the situation to expand domestic surveillance by forcing people to upload personal data, including medical records and travel history, to government apps, in return for freedom of movement, Lithuania noted in its 2021 threat assessment, published on Thursday (4 March).
They have also stepped up use of CCTV equipped with facial-recognition software and drones to observe people’s movements in what amounts to a golden age for authoritarian states, Lithuania said.
Meanwhile, vaccine exports have become “a new geopolitical instrument of global influence”, in order to boost their image and forge closer ties in target states.
The main targets are poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
But China, for instance, did the same with exports of medical equipment to Lithuania.
The Chinese embassy, Chinese media, diaspora NGOs, and Chinese-funded Lithuanian media portrayed the aid as coming from Chinese firms trying to acquire strategic assets in the EU state.
And they interlaced their stories with attacks on Lithuanian politicians who were critical of China on human rights grounds.
On the cyber front, the pandemic helped hostile services by making it more likely victims would open links in emails containing malware if the malicious emails were about corona.
“The subject of pandemic inspires not only curiosity but also fear, anxiety and other strong emotions that … reduce vigilance,” the Lithuanian assessment says.
Recent attacks targeted the Klaipėda Seamen’s Hospital and Lithuanian National Public Health Centre in attempts to steal data.
They also targeted vaccine research centres in Europe.
The fact many people, including diplomats, were suddenly forced to work from home, also created “new vulnerabilities” as IT staff set up remote-working tool ” as fast as possible… not always prioritising security”.
Lithuania’s threat report focused on its two hostile neighbours – Belarus and Russia.
It noted that Russia’s efforts to neutralise “alleged external threats” in its EU neighbourhood were becoming “less constrained not only by international law but also by international opinion”.
Economic stagnation and rising popular discontent inside Russia also meant that “in several years, the situation in Russia could resemble the current crisis in Belarus … and the ruling regime could expect to retain power only by resorting to violent repressions”, Lithuania said.
The pandemic meant Belarus and Russia had smaller scope for collecting intelligence from human sources, as both their own and EU nationals drastically reduced international travel.
Russia’s ‘FSB’ and Belarus’ ‘KGB’ intelligence services grilled Lithuanians in border crossings to obtain as much personal information as they could for grooming potential agents, Lithuania warned.
“During the border crossing procedures, FSB inspects the content of the targeted individuals’ mobile devices – checks their contacts, messages and photos,” Lithuania said.
In some cases, the FSB also installed malware on people’s phones, enabling “remote interception of calls and correspondence of the device owner and providing access to the camera and microphone of the device”, it added.
The KGB also used Cold War-era methods to try to blackmail Lithuanians into spying for them.
In one case highlighted in the report, a 34-year old Lithuanian IT administrator who went to a friend’s birthday in Belarus “met a lovely Belarusian girl, Yelena, who treated him with exceptional attention all evening” in a bar in Grodno.
They slept together.
But the next day, the victim found himself shoved into a car by plain clothes officers, who showed him compromising photos of the night before and threatened to send them to his wife in Lithuania if he did not play ball.
Espionage aside, Russia was also using its military might to intimidate Nato allies and project influence in the EU neighbourhood, Lithuania noted.
On 23 September last year, the day of Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashaneko’s inauguration, six Russian strategic bombers flew over Belarus near the Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian borders, while two others bombed targets at a training range in Belarus.
“The likely aim of demonstrative flights and deployment of airborne troops was to show [Nato] that Belarus belongs to the Russian sphere of interests,” Lithuania said.
In Libya, Russian specialists likely helped Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar to modernise two ‘S-200’ air-defence systems, Lithuania said.
“It is probable that Russia may also … provide the ‘LNA’ [Haftar’s army] with S-200 systems” in future, Lithuania added.
Noting that a stray Russian missile shot down passenger flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 causing hundreds of civilian deaths, Russia’s “irresponsible arms supply policy … threatens the safety of military and civilian aviation in the [Libya] region”, Lithuania said.