International,  BRICS

Coronavirus Fuelled by the Dark Web & Cyber Sovereignty


For the coronavirus outbreak, the wet markets in Wuhan province of China are identified as the epicenter that sold a range of exotic animals for human consumption. These wet markets also help meet demands from the dark web. Some exotic species sold in these wet markets include snakes, civet, wolf cubs, snakes, foxes, bats, and even pangolins. It is also important to note that back in 2002, after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(SARS) outbreak( a disease similar to Covid-19), the World Health Organisation reported that civets carried a virus from the bat that was transferred to humans in a wet market near Hong Kong. Therefore, we need to recognize, without any delay, that these wet markets have become the breeding ground for these deadly diseases facilitated by the globally high demand met using the dark web and the Internet regulated by China. In this article, it is analyzed how China’s Dometic regulation in Cybersecurity, Wildlife Domestication and Medicine has facilitated demand for wildlife trade and the spread of Coronavirus.

In 2018, amidst fierce opposition, the World Health Organisation (WHO) formalized the inclusion of a chapter on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) into the 11th volume of International Classification of Diseases(ICD). The ICD document is an influential database used for diagnosis, research, and health insurance claims. This action was considered a big win for those who advocated herbal remedies; it also sustained a smuggling network my legitimizing animal-origin treatments. Although, WHO did clarify that it did not endorse the use or validity of over 3,000 elements mentioned in the new chapter, it did not attempt to exclude animal-based treatments.

“The WHO recognizes the values and role traditional medicine can play in national health systems, especially in primary care,” Bernhard Schwartlander, WHO representative in China

As expected, this announcement had emboldened poachers, animal traffickers, and the wet-market in China, who maintain the appeal of TCM usage with animal skins, scales, horns, and bones.

Further, the State Forestry and Grassland Administration (SFGA), which is the principal regulatory body, regulates both farming and trade in terrestrial wildlife, and quotas of wildlife products — such as pangolin scales — allowed to be used by the Chinese medicine industry. For the past few years, China’s leadership, through SFGA, has pushed the idea that “wildlife domestication” as a critical part of rural development, eco-tourism, and poverty alleviation programs. According to a report released in 2017, by the Chinese Academy of Engineering on the development of the wildlife farming industry, the wildlife-farming industry-valued around $60 Billion. Therefore, to maintain supply-demand balance, the Chinese Government officials encourage citizens to get into farming wildlife such as civet cats — that carried SARS.

Simultaneous to China’s government effort of creating supply in wildlife animal products, there has been a considerable demand facilitated by the dark web. From fueling demand for niche pets to connecting buyers with those offering, anything from rhino horn tonics to highly endangered tortoises, the rise of the dark web allows the illicit wildlife trade to thrive as never before.

While the web, as we know it, is only considered to be the tip of the iceberg, the rest unindexed and unregulated, thereby harboring the online black market for illicit activities. Also, in a report by INTERPOL, it was given that there was clear evidence of dark-web trading in wild animal products from endangered species, such as rhino horn, elephant ivory, and tiger parts. However, some of these animal products have been legitimized internationally in the Traditional Chinese Medicine category.

“Cyber sovereignty is a phrase used in the field of Internet governance to describe governments’ desire to exercise control over the Internet within their own borders, including political, economic, cultural and technological activities.” — Bruce Schenier

While in other countries, cybercriminals would usually turn to the deep and dark web to offer their illegal services or products, the Chinese are more active on the clear net — also known as regulated part of the internet. The government limits access to the dark network by censoring it. However, China’s Cybersecurity Law, built around the principle of cyber sovereignty, acts as a shield to protect the sale of wildlife animal products, legitimized by the Chinese Authorities, and not concerned illegal because it is classified as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TBM). The governmental authorities in China encourage the trade of wildlife animal products via the regulated part of the web in China. Therefore, Internet infrastructure haboured in China has become a breeding ground for global illicit wildlife trade online.

In addition, cybercriminals globally can reach a more magnificent pool of buyers on the “regulated cyber sovereign Chinese Internet” and achieve higher profits. This makes it riskier for the seller; however, to support them, many Chinese cybercriminals use unique “jargon” or “code names” to avoid government censors and crackdowns.

“Language barriers, cultural differences, and government-imposed access restrictions make it incredibly difficult for threat hunters to access and blend in with these Asian underground communities to perform threat reconnaissance effectively.”

In early February this year, China issued a temporary ban on wildlife trade to curb the spread of the virus and began a widespread crackdown on breeding facilities like the wet markets. The country’s top legislative officials are now rushing to amend the country’s wildlife protection law and possibly restructure regulations on the use of wildlife for food and traditional Chinese medicine. Nearly 20,000 wildlife farms raising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, ostriches, wild geese, and boar have been shut down across Chine in the wake of the coronavirus.

[This article is written by Sanjana Rathi]


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