The Diocese of Hong Kong has been targeted by “spear-phishing” operations from the Chinese government, a technology publication is reporting.
According to ZDNet, hackers associated with the Chinese government have repeatedly attacked officials with the Diocese of Hong Kong with legitimate-looking documents that actually install malware on the user’s computer.
Unlike “phishing,” which is a widespread, general attempt to trick a user into entering their password on what they think is a legitimate website, “spear-phishing” is specifically targeted at one organization or person.
In this case, the Diocese of Hong Kong is the organization that hackers have been seeking to infiltrate, ZDNet reported.
A malware analyst who uses the pseudonym Arkbird told ZDNet that he had uncovered malware that was previously used by the Chinese government. This virus contained legitimate looking applications that loaded either a document or news article related to the Catholic Church, but actually installed malware on the user’s computer without their knowledge.
“Malware” is defined as “malicious software variants, including viruses, ransomware, and spyware.” In this case, the malware is used to spy on the user’s computer system.
Arkbird believes that the malware originated from a group known as “Mustang Panda,” which has targeted religious organizations in the past.
The Catholic Church in Hong Kong has always had a normal relationship with the Holy See, unlike the Church in mainland China. In mainland China, there was a split: the illegal “underground” Catholic Church was in full communion with Rome, whereas the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which is administered by the Chinese Communist Party, was not.
In September 2018, the Vatican and China reached a deal that would regularize the status of the CPCA and accept its bishops into full communion with the Holy See. The full details of this deal have not been released.
Prominent Catholic leaders in Hong Kong have been vocal in support of the pro-democracy protests that have occurred over the last year.
On July 1, a new “National security law” was introduced in Hong Kong that is expected to impact the religious freedom of Hong Kongers.
The full terms of the law were released on the evening of June 30 shortly ahead of July 1, the anniversary of the handover of the area from Great Britain to China, traditionally a day of pro-democracy demonstrations in the city.
Under the new law, a person who is convicted of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence. The law’s broad definition of terrorism includes arson and vandalizing public transportation “with an intent to intimidate the Hong Kong government or Chinese government for political purposes.”
Cardinal John Tong Hon, the administrator of the diocese, voiced support for the new security law, and said that in his view it was not a threat to religious freedom.
“I personally believe that the National Security Law will have no effect on religious freedom, because Article 32 of the Basic Law guarantees that we have freedom of religion, and we can also openly preach and hold religious ceremonies, and participate in religious activities,” Cardinal Tong Hon told the diocesan newspaper in June.
Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen said that he thought it was “wrong” that people were encouraged by the government to speak out in support of the law before the full details were unveiled, but acknowledged that his successor was in a “tricky” situation.
“On the one hand, it will be a lot of trouble if we don’t support the government. We never know what they will do to our Church,” said Zen.
“On the other hand, [Tong] disappointed many within the Church by giving his support.”