China's new hacking attempt: Mystery seeds?

China's new hacking attempt: Mystery seeds?

Is this a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or an attempt to sabotage America’s agriculture as an escalation of a trade war? Twenty-seven states have now raised alarms about mystery seeds showing up in mailboxes which appear to have originated from China. No one knows what the seeds are, but agricultural experts warn it could produce an invasive species that could choke off legitimate crops.

Beijing’s regime has spent the last several years, at least, refining and perfecting its hacking operations to penetrate American government and commercial sites. Is this China’s attempt to “hack” our agricultural industry?

Agriculture officials in multiple states issued warnings Monday about unsolicited shipments of foreign seeds and advised people not to plant them. In Kentucky, the state agriculture department was notified that several residents received unsolicited seed packets sent by mail that appeared to have originated in China, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said.

The types of seeds are unknown and could be harmful, Quarles said, stressing that they should not be planted.

“We don’t know what they are, and we cannot risk any harm whatsoever to agricultural production in the United States,” he said. “We have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world and we need to keep it that way.”

The New York Times has a comprehensive list of the states that have issued warnings. My home state of Minnesota published a warning yesterday, as did nearly every state in the Midwest. Minnesota’s warning indicated that some of the packages showed up in this state, and this news report from Seattle’s King5 indicated that residents there have received them as well:

If you see these in the mail, don’t open the sealed bags. Of course, that’s good advice for anything that shows up unsolicited in your mailbox.

With more than half of the states issuing warnings, this appears to be a pretty widespread effort to spread the use of these unknown seeds. What’s the purpose behind it? Besides an attempt to sabotage American agriculture, the NYT offers a couple of other possibilities:

It was not immediately clear what types of seeds they were, but Mike Strain, the Louisiana agriculture and forestry commissioner, said in an interview that it appeared that waterlily seeds were among those received by residents of his state.

The police in Whitehouse, Ohio, where a resident reported receiving seeds, said the packages appeared to be a part of a “brushing” fraud.

“A brushing scam,” the department said on its Facebook page, “is an exploit by a vendor used to bolster product ratings and increase visibility online by shipping an inexpensive product to an unwitting receiver and then submitting positive reviews on the receiver’s behalf under the guise of a verified owner.”

Although the seeds did not appear to be “directly dangerous,” the department said, “we would still prefer that people contact us to properly dispose of the seeds.”

A brushing scam? Well, maybe, but this looks like too large a scale for a simple scam effort. It takes money and information to put these together, and there’s not a lot of payoff to something on this scale for private-sector or black-market scammers. The postage and packaging costs alone would be too high for most non-state operators, especially for just a few clicks on Amazon.

This also doesn’t sound like a typical brushing scam. In fact, this little detail doesn’t sound like the idea was to get any kind of commercial response, and might have inadvertently alerted targets that something was amiss:

Some of the packages were labeled to say they contained jewelry, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture. The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry reported that some of the packages were labeled to say they contained earbuds or toys.

That’s not the kind of thing a normal scammer would fumble. It called attention to the oddity of the package, and no doubt led to an early detection of this intrusion — whatever its origin or purpose.

The scope of this operation and its use of unlabeled seeds looks like an attempt by China to literally sow havoc in our agriculture, at least at first blush. The origin point appears to be China, and Beijing has the money and the resources for that kind of operation. Don’t forget that China hacked Equifax a couple of years ago, which means they have a pretty good idea where Americans live and what kind of land they own or use. If this actually is a hostile operation by China against American agriculture (and it hasn’t yet been proven to be that, please remember), it wouldn’t be the first biological threat we’ve received from them this year.

Will it work? One has to wonder just how many people have already unwittingly planted the seeds to see what they would produce. If they can dig them up, great — but if they begin to flower and produce seeds, it might not be possible to eradicate them quickly. Throwing the seeds away alone might not be enough either if they then take root in landfills. That’s why the states are warning to keep the seeds sealed, and in some cases are asking recipients to put the sealed bags into other sealed bags and call their agricultural departments for disposal.

Finally, this question must be asked: Who had The Mystery Seeds of Doom on their 2020 scorecards? This year, man …

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