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Cold War echoes at Belarus meeting

Just as a major conference on the dictatorship in Belarus was getting underway in Oslo on Thursday, came an ominous echo from the Cold War past: All those in attendance were warned from the podium that a spy was among them.

Litteraturhuset in Oslo, the site of a conference on Belarus Thursday, apparently was the target of a cyber attack on conference participants. PHOTO: Views and News

“We have had a spying surveillance warning,” conference moderator and author Per Anders Todal told the group of more than 100 diplomats, foreign policy experts, politicians and journalists gathered inside  Litteraturhuset (The House of Literature) in Oslo to discuss the dictatorship in Belarus and what can be done to improve human rights and democracy in the increasingly isolated country in Europe.

Clearly puzzled himself, Todal read aloud from a note he’d been handed by one of the conference organizers: “A spying program has been detected within the WiFi (wireless network) here at Litteraturhuset. We’ve been advised not to use smart phones.” Or, he added, to be careful with them.

It was eerie announcement that caused many in attendance to sit up straight and check their phones and laptop computers. The alleged spying program had been detected by one of the human rights activists attending and speaking at the conference, when she’d attempted to use the WiFi.

“I just installed a program guard a few weeks ago, called “DroidSheep Guard,” said Anna Gerasimova, who spent 16 years working to promote human rights in Belarus and now is director of the Belarusian Human Rights House in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania. The program is designed to determine if a “session highjacking” attack is running on a public wireless network.

When Gerasimova used her smart phone, the warning popped up from DroidSheep Guard. It was the first time that had happened, and it concerned her enough to alert conference organizers, who then warned others in the room that their private communication may be exposed to prying eyes.

Gerasimova said the spying program “pretends to be a router” to the network, but in reality it allows others “to track what’s on your screen.” It can give whoever had launched the spying program access to information, or allow them to intercept it.

She didn’t think it had anything to do with the managers of the conference venue or those responsible for its WiFi. Rather, said one of the conference organizers, “it indicates that someone in this room is trying to intercept other people’s communication.”

The conference was attended by many diplomats, from the Russian, Serbian, French, Dutch, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Finnish and German embassies in Oslo. Also present were many human rights activists and government officials, not least from Norway.

“I realize I’m maybe a little paranoid, coming from Belarus,” Gerasimova said. “But I thought everyone should be told, and be careful.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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