The servers of the government of Vanuatu have reportedly been the target of a malicious cyberattack, which has rendered them inaccessible for more than eleven days.
The attack has taken down the websites of the Pacific islands’ legislature, police, and prime minister’s office.
It has also shut down the government’s email, intranet, and online databases and those of schools, hospitals, and other emergency services.
About 315,000 people who live on different islands in the country need help to do basic things like pay taxes, send bills to be paid, and get licenses and travel visas.
Locals told the BBC that anyone with a gov. vu email address or domain was affected.
“Anyone who tried to do business with the government knew the system was down,” said Ginny Stein, an Australian journalist and communications consultant who lived in Port Vila for years before leaving on Monday.
When I tried to leave the country, they couldn’t work. They had a hard time getting even the most essential things done.”
She said that applications to the government are taking a long time because government workers are using manual systems or have even shut down.
If you came to the office, it would be either closed, or they advised you to return next week,” she explained
Still, government workers have done their best to keep things running. For example, some have used their emails and hotspots to do important work.
People have been paid with checks instead of electronically. One government worker said they had to walk from department to department to get an application checked and signed off. Others have been writing down their notes by hand.
What went wrong?
Civil servants who talked to the BBC on the condition of anonymity say that it looks like the government’s servers were taken offline on November 4.
Residents stated that emails bouncing back from official addresses were the first indicator that something was awry.
When the government’s internet is turned off,everything suffers. Do you want to ship? You have to get things via customs approvals. Airlines are affected. It impacts the healthcare system in every way,” Ms Stein explained.
The BBC has called the government and the Prime Minister’s office, but they have yet to getvsny feedback.
On the other hand, the AFP news agency and the Vanuatu Daily Post published a statement from the government claiming that its online system had been “compromised” for two days.
There appears to be a monetary motive. According to the Australian publication The Sydney Morning Herald, the perpetrators sought a ransom, which the Vanuatu government refused to pay.
No one has said anything about how much money was being demanded or who the hackers are.
It also needs to be clarified how the attack happened or what Vanuatu did to protect itself. Experts have pointed out that the whole system was probably hosted on the government’s servers, which is a significant security flaw.
Already, the island has promised to improve its system. In the meantime, it has asked Australia, which is close by and has always been its biggest aid partner, to help rebuild its network.
The government domain was still down as of Wednesday. The government site “should be back next week,” a spokesman told the Herald.
What could have made Vanuatu the target?
The attack happened less than a month after a new government took office, which could be a weak time. “But the new government acted decisively and refused to pay the ransom,” said Dr Meg Keen, who runs the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
We don’t know who is behind this attack yet, but a government spokesman says it was likely an attack from another country, likely in Asia.
Some believe the hack may have started in Indonesia. Vanuatu has long backed the independence struggle in Indonesia’s West Papua province, where the majority of the population is Melanesian. The Indonesian military is accused of severe human rights violations in the region.
Some point out Vanuatu is an important country in the Pacific region, with close ties to the US, China, Australia, and New Zealand.
Washington and Beijing have tried to make deals with Pacific Island countries this year. In September, island leaders were invited to the White House. In June, China’s foreign minister made a quick trip around the Pacific to try to reach a deal with other countries.
But Australia, a US ally, has been Vanuatu’s most significant donor of aid and closest security partner for more than 40 years.
Internet access is a vital service. Last year, the Australian government helped its telecoms giant Telstra buy a Pacific telecoms company called Digicel Pacific. This was seen by many as a political move to block China’s influence in the area.
There was talk that Digicel might sell its Pacific business to China Mobile, a state-owned company in China. The nearby Solomon Islands also got an internet cable from Australia in 2018.
Dr Keen said that, like other countries, Vanuatu wanted to keep its government information safe from attacks from outside the country. She said these kinds of attacks are “globally vulnerable,” including in Australia, where hackers broke into a health insurer and a telecommunications company in the past few weeks and got into the data of almost half of the population.
Vanuatu, on the other hand, has significantly fewer resources. Its economy is mainly based on agriculture and tourism. The low-lying country has been identified as the most vulnerable to climate change.
“The attack puts an additional burden on public services,” Dr Keen stated.
Ms Stein, who had worked in Vanuatu government agencies, observed that the country’s internet system was weak, with fluctuating internet coverage and inadequate server capacity.
“It’s a terrible thing to do to a small island nation that simply cannot deal with this,” she said.