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Mystery surrounds Samoan Ambassador's e-mail hack

Samoa's Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations had his email address compromised last year.

The Samoa Observer learned this week of suspicious digital activity emanating from the email address of Ambassador Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia last year. 

Investigations into the source of irregular e-mails led Samoa's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (M.F.A.T.) confirming that the Ambassador's email account was hacked on November 18 last year. 

The M.F.A.T. declined to be interviewed about the email hacking on Thursday or if it knew for how long the email account had been compromised. This leaves open questions about whether the hack is a case of espionage or a typical security breach. 

The Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry, Peseta Noumea Simi, said her office was informed about the security breach on the day it occurred and the email address was changed to a secure address which remains in use to this day. 

Peseta said that the Samoan Mission to the United Nations extended a warning to all of its United Nations contacts on the day it became aware of the breach. 

“A similar notice from the U.N. G77 grouping was issued to all its 140 plus membership on the same issue of compromised communication," Peseta said. 

The Group of 77 is a coalition of developing nations of the United Nations

An expert in cybersecurity, Tagiilima Neemia, said there are myriad of ways to infiltrate someone’s email or computer systems, which would make it difficult to guess how or why the Ambassador's email address was hacked.

It may have been intentional and he was targeted, Ms. Neemia said or the Ambassador may have stumbled into a trap laid for anyone.

“I would say it has to do with some kind of link that installed a programme or was able to give attackers access to his email or computer," Ms. Neemia said. 

“Maybe they were looking for something to use against him, it could be a personal attack, or he could have been targeted for a reason like wanting to know confidential or political information in his email to use against Samoa.

“It really depends on the attacker, you just have to think why you would want to target a Samoan embassy.”

While the causes of the Ambassador's security breach are not known, the use of so-called "cyber warfare" has become routine on the international stage and a regular part of nation states' intelligence activities. 

The United Nations faces constant cyber threats. 

A report leaked to The New Humanitarian reveals 42 servers in the organisation's Geneva and Vienna offices were compromised, the first of which were detected more than six months ago. 

One official reportedly said that the attack was so sophisticated it could only have been executed by a state actor. 

Cyber security threats against Governments are also increasingly common, Ms. Neemia said. 

“It’s something that is happening, and there is a lot of ways this can happen. Most of this stuff is happening via email, websites, spybots, and it’s something you cannot really pinpoint where and how exactly each Government is doing it," she added. 

“The way I see it, cyber security is not limited to hacking, but it’s infiltrating using vulnerabilities in the system to get something that may not look useful right then, but may be useful later.”

Australian intelligence agencies blamed a 2019 hack of that country's Parliamentary servers on the Chinese Government. Beijing strongly denies that finding.

Hillary Clinton's campaign manager for the 2016 Presidential election, John Podesta, famously had his email compromised amid allegations he used a simple easy-to-compromise password. 

Meanwhile, the Secretary of the U.S. Army earlier this month announced that boosting America's electronic warfare and cyber capabilities are a driving force behind a move to deploy two new special task forces to the Pacific next year. 

No location has been named for the unit's deployment but Bloomberg reported the Army was looking to islands "east of the Philippines". 

The Oceania Cyber Security Centre has been working with 15 Pacific Island countries to improve their digital policies. 

Ambassador Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia has served both as Samoa's representative in the United States and its permanent representative to the United Nations since 2003. 

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