This past weekend, tourists milled around St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the holiest sites in the world, snapping selfies and experiencing Michelangelo’s art through their phone’s camera lens. But when you think about cyber espionage, the Vatican certainly doesn’t come to mind as an obvious target. It’s a tiny country whose leader has more moral authority than worldly power.
A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm alleges that the Vatican and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong were targeted by Chinese hackers ahead of negotiations set to take place in September to discuss the status of the church in China, CNN reported. Chinese leaders may have been looking for an advantage — inside knowledge on how the Holy See planned to approach the bargaining table, according to a report released Tuesday by Recorded Future, a threat intelligence firm.
Recorded Future, the Massachusetts firm, reported Tuesday that Chinese-state sponsored group RedDelta had intruded in the networks of the Vatican to gain insight into the negotiating position of the Church ahead of the 2020 renewal of the 2018 China-Vatican provisional agreement, which allows Beijing to name bishops with approval from the pope.
“We believe that this targeting is indicative of both China’s objective in consolidating increased control over the underground Catholic Church within China, and diminishing the perceived influence of the Vatican on Chinese Catholics,” the report says.
Targeting the Vatican, the report continued, was part of China’s ongoing plan to seize control of the country’s underground Catholic church, whose leaders are not approved by the state-run China Patriotic Association.
The status of those churches and questions about who has the power to name bishops are at the crux of the negotiations between China and the Vatican. China also is keeping a close eye on the church’s stance on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The hackers’ methods weren’t particularly sophisticated — one included a common spear phishing tactic — but they are effective, according to the analyst. One “lure” was a condolence letter from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, to a leader in the Hong Kong church, a key participant in the upcoming negotiations. Upon opening, the letter infects the opener’s computer.
A spokesman for the Vatican declined to comment. The Chinese Foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the New York Times, which first reported the story, said a Chinese official denied the report and called the accusations “groundless speculation.”