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What is the UN doing with your data?

If you allow another country to gain access to really critical data about your society, over time that will erode your sovereignty, you no longer have control over that data.

MI6 chief Richard Moore to BBC News (30 November 2021).

2011

France24: UN among victims of massive cyber-spying campaign

“Cyber-security experts have unveiled one of the biggest computer hacking campaigns to date, releasing a list of 72 organisations whose networks were attacked over a five-year period. Victims include the UN and several governments.

REUTERS – Security experts have discovered the biggest series of cyber attacks to date, involving the infiltration of the networks of 72 organizations including the United Nations, governments and companies around the world. … 

In the case of the United Nations, the hackers broke into the computer system of its secretariat in Geneva in 2008, hid there for nearly two years, and quietly combed through reams of secret data, according to McAfee.”

2017

June

BBC: Accenture and Microsoft plan digital IDs for millions of refugees

December

UNHCR: ID2020 and UNHCR Host Joint Workshop on Digital Identity

2019

June

Xinhua: China, UN to build big data research institute in Hangzhou

2020

January

The New Humanitarian: EXCLUSIVE: The cyber attack the UN tried to keep under wraps

“If there are no consequences for the [UN] agencies for failures like these … there will be more breaches.”

About this investigation:
While researching cybersecurity last November, we came across a confidential report about the UN. Networks and databases had been severely compromised – and almost no one we spoke to had heard about it. This article about that attack adds to The New Humanitarian’s previous coverage on humanitarian data. We look at how the UN got hacked and how it handled this breach, raising questions about the UN’s responsibilities in data protection and its diplomatic privileges.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daveywinder/2020/01/30/united-nations-confirms-serious-cyberattack-with-42-core-servers-compromised/?sh=4cb9c05d633d

UN confirms it suffered a ‘serious’ hack, but didn’t inform employees

Approximately 4,000 employees may have had their data compromised.

April

Quartz: The UN is partnering with China’s biggest surveillance software company

Foreign Policy: EXCLUSIVE U.N.: Backs Down on Partnership With Chinese Firm for 75th Anniversary: The decision comes after U.S. officials and human rights advocates complained that Tencent aids Beijing in surveillance.

October

WSJ Opinion: China Uses the U.N. to Expand Its Surveillance Reach | In the name of ‘sustainable development,’ Beijing takes the lead in data collection efforts.

December

United Nations: Inauguration Ceremony Regional Hub for Big Data in China in support of the United Nations Global Platform

“I am very honoured to join you today in this inauguration ceremony of the Regional Hub for Big Data in China, in support of the United Nations Global Platform. The inauguration of this Regional Hub is most important, and timely. 

The demand for data, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is greater than ever.  Governments are in need of detailed data on the spread of the virus and its impacts on society. Under these challenging circumstances, statistical institutes have had to respond urgently to the demand for data, and to present innovative solutions. Consequently, in these times of need, the statistical community is now able to effectively use Big Data and advanced technologies. 

For example, census data – together with detailed geospatial information – can help identify the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic. And, real-time data on the position and movement of ships, for example, can estimate the volume of cargo being transported, and thus help produce estimates on the state of the economy. These real-time shipping data are available as a global data set on the United Nations Global Platform, and can be accessed by the whole statistical community.”

2021

January

ITPro: United Nations suffers potential data breach: Hackers could have breached the database long before the UN applied a patch

March

Financial Times: Opinion Technology sector: As digital trade grows, so does western distrust of Beijing: China is moving to the forefront of global innovation but governments fear privacy breaches

April

Nikkei Asia: Comment: Data suspicions threaten to tear China and west apart: Applications by Chinese companies see 200-fold increase since 1999

May

UNHCR: Government of Pakistan delivers first new biometric identity smartcards to Afghan refugees

July

ODI: Although shocking, the Rohingya biometrics scandal is not surprising and could have been prevented

“The data privacy and security of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has reportedly been jeopardised by the UN Refugee Agency. In an exposé published on 15 June by Human Rights Watch (HRW), UNHCR stands accused of improperly collecting the Rohingya’s biometric information and later sharing it with the Myanmar government without the Rohingya’s consent. Refugees said they had been told to register to receive aid, but the risks of sharing their biometrics had not been discussed, and the possibility this information would be shared with Myanmar was not mentioned.

The potential harm of sharing information with a regime that has a long history of manipulating registration systems to exclude and marginalise Rohingya populations is obvious. That biometrics are involved makes it worse. Unlike names or other personal information, biometrics are sticky – it’s not something you can change or escape.”

August

Reuters: ANALYSIS-Afghan panic over digital footprints spurs call for data collection rethink

Biometric Update: Concerns over Taliban accessing aid agency biometric data

“People in Afghanistan are fearful of the Taliban accessing personal information captured and stored by aid agencies including biometric data which could be used to identify individuals. Experts have raised concern that approaches used by security firms and United Nations development agencies could prove problematic for refugees and vulnerable groups, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable trust of Thomson Reuters.

The Intercept reported that equipment used by the U.S. army for biometric collection has already been seized by the Taliban. Biometric data on Afghans who assisted the U.S. were widely collected, making anybody identified vulnerable to persecution from the Taliban.

Sources told the Intercept that there was little planning for such an event, while the U.S. Army plans to continue to spend another $11 million on biometrics capture equipment including 95 more devices.

The UNHCR has been using biometrics in the region since 2002 when it tested iris recognition technology on Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Aid agencies praise biometric technology’s anti fraud and contactless capabilities.”

September

Bloomberg: Cybersecurity

UN Computer Networks Breached by Hackers Earlier This Year

“Hackers breached the United Nations’ computer networks earlier this year and made off with a trove of data that could be used to target agencies within the intergovernmental organization. 

The hackers’ method for gaining access to the UN network appears to be unsophisticated: They likely got in using the stolen username and password of a UN employee purchased off the dark web.”

“Organizations like the UN are a high-value target for cyber-espionage activity,” Resecurity Chief Executive Officer Gene Yoo said. “The actor conducted the intrusion with the goal of compromising large numbers of users within the UN network for further long-term intelligence gathering.”

CPO Magazine: United Nations Data Breach: Hackers Obtained Employee Login From Dark Web, Are Executing Ongoing Attacks on UN Agencies

“A spokesperson for the United Nations has confirmed that the organization was breached by hackers in early 2021, and that attacks tied to that breach on various branches of the UN are ongoing. The data breach appears to stem from an employee login that was sold on the dark web. The attackers used this entry point to move farther into the UN’s networks and conducted reconnaissance between April and August. Information gleaned from this activity appears to have been put to use in further attacks, with attempts made on at least 53 accounts.”

UN data breach creates long-term havoc for organization

“The UN has a unique need for cutting-edge cybersecurity given that it is one of the world’s prime targets for hackers, and that it fields regular attacks from advanced operators. Many of these go unrecorded, but the organization has weathered some high-profile attacks in recent years.”

“Unique Identity for All”: Biometric identity is being rolled out across the planet. HSB is one of the many players in this fast-growing data collection sector. Companies such as HSB collect data on behalf of international organisations.
This story is from 1992 and is a rare glimpse into Canada’s data sharing agreements with the US and other countries.

Data integrity and cross-border data sharing have been concerns for a very long time. False Data Makes Border Screening Corruptible

Further Reading:

There’s a War Going On But No One Can See It by Huib Modderkolk, Bloomsbury, 02 Sept. 2021

“Based on the cases he investigated over a period of six years, award-winning Dutch journalist Huib Modderkolk takes the reader on a tour of the corridors and back doors of the globalised digital world. He reconstructs British-American espionage operations and reveals how the power relationships between countries enable intelligence services to share and withhold data from each other.”  

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, Profile Books, 2019

“Surveillance Capitalism: A new phase in economic history in which private companies and governments track your every move with the goal of predicting and controlling your behaviour. Under surveillance capitalism you are not the customer or even the product: you are the raw material.”

BBC News: MI6 boss warns of China ‘debt traps and data traps’

“In a wide-ranging interview ahead of his first major public speech since taking on the role as head of MI6, Mr Moore:

  • warned China has the capability to “harvest data from around the world” and uses money to “get people on the hook” …

“Speaking about the threat posed by China, Mr Moore described its use of “debt traps and data traps”.

He said Beijing is “trying to use influence through its economic policies to try and sometimes, I think, get people on the hook”.

Explaining the “data trap”, he said: “If you allow another country to gain access to really critical data about your society, over time that will erode your sovereignty, you no longer have control over that data.

“That’s something which, I think, in the UK we are very alive to and we’ve taken measures to defend against.”

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UNRISD Blog

A Report from the UN Conference on the Social and Political Dimensions of the Global Crisis: Implications for Developing Countries (12-13 November 2009)

Organised by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva, Switzerland. Held at the Palais des Nations.

Just as now (2021) 2009 was a year in which the questions revolved around receiving a vaccine (for H1N1) and how best to affirm a person’s identity and citizenship.

A conference in Geneva struck a pessimistic note on the current global financial crisis and any hope for a new social and economic order. The conference asked “whether current policy reforms are conducive to a transformative social change or if they only reproduce the status quo.”

A March 2009 IMF report on the downturn’s affect on the Global South and developing countries found that “fluctuating commodity prices, high fuel costs, the rise in food prices in addition to a decrease in remittances, foreign direct investment and aid flow could mean an increase in the financing needs of low-income countries by at least US $25 billion.”

The presenters at the conference painted a picture of a robust neo-liberal economic order that is already in the process of dusting itself off from the crisis and restoring its dominance.

Bob Jessop, from the University of Lancaster, captured the paralysis of opposition to the neo-liberal order by saying “They are busy doing it and we are busy talking about it.”

To paraphrase philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Neo-liberalism may in fact be strengthened by the crisis, according to presenters. It will evolve and take on new forms, they argued.

The world’s business elites have an enormous capacity to re-shape the rules of the economic game back in their favour. While the massive state support to the banking sector had led some to believe governments were restoring faith in public investments, in fact state support is seen as “timely, targeted and temporary.”

When asked about the future as the crisis passes and countries come out of recession, the presenters believed this was a short-term recovery, and that far worse economic crises would be coming in the next five to 10 years.

Andrew Martin Fischer, from the Institute for Social Studies at Erasmus University, believes the harmful effects of the bailouts will be pushed to the periphery over the next five to 10 years, harming the poor. He also believes a major financial crisis is brewing in China. He called ‘China the fault line in the future.’

The powerful, he pointed out, displaced the costs of their mistakes onto other people. Proponents of different approaches had missed the moment because they were not able to present off-the-shelf strategies that could be deployed in a crisis on short notice. Thus, they had left the field open to neo-liberal solutions.

The global crisis in the short-term has not been worse because of unprecedented global cooperation. Keynsianmeasures have been used to solve the crisis, but are also used to preserve Wall Street. Also, the enormous contribution of growth in China and India means there are other sources of wealth in the world than just the North.

Getting back to normal should not be what we are doing, the panellists concluded at the conference’s final session. Governments should look at new opportunities for social policy. The panellists were disturbed that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is seen as part of the solution. This means deep cuts in public expenditure are coming. There will not be a trickle down of wealth and the imbalances from before the crisis will remain. In short, the system was not working before the crisis.

Some policy suggestions put forward included: rural income guarantees, managed migration to support development goals, making a gender perspective critical to development. Governments should take a preventive approach to tackle future crises. Unfortunately, it now seems no money is left to address these problems. Yet business as usual is not an option with so many inequalities and imbalances.

“This conference on the social and political consequences of crisis is a critical subject for debate at this juncture,” said UNRISD’s director, Dr. Sarah Cook. “We are now at a point where many countries, particularly in the North, are emerging out of the severe shock of immediate crisis. Discussions of alternative policies and institutional arrangements at national and global levels may become less urgent; the status quo is reasserting itself and the space for ideas and policies that offer the possibilities of more stable, sustainable and equitable development will quickly shrink.”

Session 1: Impacts, Coping Strategies and Livelihoods

Session 2: Social Policy: Country and Regional Perspectives

Session 3: Social Policy: Global Perspective

Session 4: Political Economy Dimensions of Crisis

And so we're looking at a big transfer of wealth, from the developed to the emerging worlds.

Business Insider has reproduced a fascinating presentation about the crisis put together by the French bank, Societe Generale (SocGen). The presentation can be found here: http://www.businessinsider.com/socgen-prepare-yourself-for-the-worst-case-scenario-2009-11#first-it-starts-with-sky-high-public-debt-1

From 1997 to 1999, I worked as the head of communications for the United Nations mission in Mongolia. The country was already experiencing a severe economic crisis as a result of its transition to free markets and democracy from the Soviet economic system. The scale of the economic collapse following the fall of communism was described at the time as the worst peacetime, post-WWII economic collapse. On top of this challenge, the Asian economic crisis erupted.

You can read the Mongolia Update 1998 book I wrote here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/20864541/Mongolia-Update-1998-Book. It shows how chaotic events are in the middle of a major crisis. Some of the key lessons we learned during this time include: 1) transparency: trust was critical and all our work was done under the full glare of public and media scrutiny, 2) action: with our existing budgets we made sure to keep doing and spending to hire people, 3) strategy: to encourage the growth of businesses and innovation, in particular the take-up of new information technologies.

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Philippine Conference Tackles Asia’s AIDS Crisis

Mongolians attend for first time

By David South

UB Post (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), October 28, 1997

Manila, Philippines – More than 2,500 delegates have gathered in the steamy hot Philippine capital to renew the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Working up a sweat alongside other participants at the Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific are nine Mongolians – a first that isn’t going unnoticed.

The Congress opened Saturday (October 25) to the pounding beat of a theme song performed by teenagers, championing defiance of death and celebration of life.

That tone was echoed by Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. He said the epidemic can be slowed down with the right public health measures – a positive message for Mongolia as it grapples with an STD crisis that many believe leaves the country at risk of an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The magnitude of that epidemic outside Mongolia is startling. Around the world, 23 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Between 5 and 7 million of them live in the Asia/Pacific region.

“The point is that prevention is feasible,” Piot told the Congress. “The results can be seen in those countries in the Asia-Pacific region where the epidemic has stalled or is in retreat.

“A good indicator for unsafe sexual behaviour is the STD rate. I am impressed at the sustained decline in STD rates in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand over the past decade.

“But I am concerned actual declines in HIV in this region have occurred only in Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.”

The countries to Mongolia’s immediate south and north are experiencing exploding health crises. In China, HIV/AIDS is increasing at a rapid rate due to factors including growing prostitution, drug use and travel – all by-products of a booming economy. The infected population is estimated at 400,000 and is expected to reach 1.2 million by the year 2000, according to China’s national AIDS committee.

To the north in Russia, a complete collapse in the public health system has dramatically slashed life expectancy and led to an upsurge in many diseases, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

With many Mongolians doing business in both these countries, there are numerous opportunities for AIDS to enter the country.

A wide range of topics is under discussion at the gathering, with women, youth and STD-control measures of particular interest to the Mongolian delegates.

For the Mongolians, the Congress is an opportunity to learn from other countries’ successes and failures in the fight against AIDS.

Mongolia’s nine-member delegation includes four doctors – Dr K. Davaajav, head of the AIDS/STD Department of the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases, Health Ministry representative Dr S. Enkhbat. Medical University director Dr Lkhagvasuren and Dr Darisuren from the United Nations Population Fund.

Also in the team are Democrat MPs B. Delgermaa and Saikhanbileg, UNICEF’s B. Bayarmaa and two representatives from women’s NGOs: S. Tsengelmaa from the Women’s Information and Research Centre and N. Chinchuluun, executive director of the Mongolian Women Lawyers Association.

On Sunday, several presentations focused on the difficulties of getting people to use condoms.

In Fiji, studies found the majority of the population was aware of AIDS and had access to condoms, but still chose not to use them.

Lisa Enriquez, a Filipino woman who is HIV-positive, gave a sobering speech on the epidemic.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned from the epidemic is human nature. AIDS is such a humanizing disease. It reminds us of being human, complete with all the weaknesses and imperfections of being human.

“Let us not kid ourselves: changing behaviour is not easy. One doesn’t change because somebody tells him or her to do so.

“We will need to get our act together, institutionalize our efforts and continue working harder with passion and perserverance.”

The Congress continues until October 30.

More on the Congress here: Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific

“The Fourth International Congress on AIDS and Asia in the Pacific convened 3,000 scientists, people working in the communities, and people living with HIV/AIDS to discuss the state of AIDS in Asia and the Pacific and how the problem is being addressed now and into the future. The following topics addressed at the Congress are explored: the extent of the HIV epidemic, HIV risk behaviors, women and HIV, clinical manifestations of HIV infection, antiretroviral therapy, and perinatal HIV transmission. HIV is spread differently among these countries and a nation’s wealth largely determines its ability to execute prevention programs and patient access to therapy. Most patients in Asia pay for their own medications. It is hoped that more prosperous and technologically advanced nations will demonstrate stronger leadership and commitment in the fight against AIDS in the region.” Phanuphak P. Fourth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. J Int Assoc Physicians AIDS Care. 1998 Feb;4(2):22-5. PMID: 11365085.

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Lamas Against AIDS

By David South

UB Post (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), November 5, 1997

Manila, Philippines – Since HIV is contracted through sex, the disease has always been a difficult subject for the world’s religious leaders. When there is sex to be discussed, no religion can do it without bringing up morality.

This moral debate about bedroom behaviour has tainted discussion of AIDS in many countries. At the extreme end of the spectrum, some evangelical Christian leaders in the US have painted AIDS as an apocalyptic disinfectant for humanity.

Not surprisingly, this attitude has not helped in educating the faithful that AIDS can happen to anyone and its victims should be treated like any other ill person.

The Philippine conference heard that the standoff between the world’s leaders and public health authorities must stop. Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, pointed to the numerous delegates from the world’s religions and called on others to follow their example.

“In Myanmar, the Myanmar Council of Churches, the YWCA and other community-based organizations have joined hands with local authorities, health workers and Buddhist groups for community-based prevention, care and support programmes,” he told the assembly.

“This is the best practice in action.”

Mongolian delegate Dr Altanchimeg thinks a similar approach could work in this country.

“Now every Mongolian goes to see lamas. It’s a good channel to advocate for AIDS education. In Thailand, lamas are very experienced at this. People believe in lamas.”

Like their colleagues in Thailand and Myanmar, Cambodian lamas have been in the forefront of AIDS education.

Lamas there use festivals and ceremonies to raise the issue.

You Chan, a 30-year-old lama from Tol Sophea Khoun monestary in Phnom Penh, likes to raise the issue delicately, by referring to diseases in Buddha’s time.

“I feel it is difficult to speak about sexual methods with a large audience – I will not speak to sexual methods.

“At first, it was very difficult. People would ask why a monk would say such things. But I tried and tried and the people understood who is helping them.

“My message to Mongolia’s lamas is this: you have a moral responsibility to educate the people about AIDS, that it is happening all around the world and there is no medicine to cure it.

“You have to take care in the name of Buddhism to help people in this world.”

You Chan teaches lamas at 15 temples in Cambodia, who pass the message along to other lamas and congregations.

Update: Interestingly, two decades after this story was written, it seems the other kind of llama’s antibodies can “neutralize a wide range of circulating HIV viruses”. From ScienceDaily: How llamas’ unusual antibodies might help in the fight against HIV/AIDS

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