Thursday, August 11 2022

Cybersecurity research firm Mandiant said this week that pro-China operatives posed as worried local residents on social media to spark protests against the opening of rare earth mines in the United States and Canada.

The cybersecurity firm’s report revealed that the fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook were created to give China a competitive advantage as it tries to retain its position as the largest producer of rare earth minerals.

Global REE production, by country, 2020 (p) Source: Natural Resources Canada

Rare earth minerals are widely used around the world in several key industries including electronics, clean energy, aerospace, automotive and defense. It is also an essential element of high-tech and “green” products due to its luminescent and catalytic properties.

The Mandiant Group ran a recent campaign dubbed “Dragonbridge” where it found fake accounts impersonating local residents and concerned environmentalists on Facebook to spark protests at the Texas site of Australian mining company Lynas Rare Earths Ltd. .

The firm said it was still unclear who was behind the campaign.

Stories claimed that the treatment facility would cause irreversible environmental damage and radioactive contamination that would lead to cancers and birth defects in newborns. The fake accounts also criticized US President Joe Biden’s plans to accelerate the mining of these rare minerals.

China is the largest producer with about 140,000 tons of rare earth elements compared to 38,000 tons produced by the United States. Other nations that also produce rare earth elements are Myanmar, Australia, and Madagascar. China was virtually the world’s sole supplier of REE until 2012, according to the Canadian government‘s Natural Resources Canada website.

On several occasions, China has threatened the United States with export bans, leading the Pentagon to bolster domestic production. The Pentagon signed a $30 million deal with Lynas in 2021 to build a facility in Texas.

Lynas said it could help meet a quarter of global demand.

Canada is host to a number of advanced exploration projects and the government has said it may have some of the largest reserves and resources. Authorities launched the Nechalacho project in 2021 in southeast Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.

It also has a processing and refining center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Canadian company Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp has also been targeted by Chinese cyber disinformation campaigns about its mining operations near Saskatchewan. USA Rare Earth LLC has also been targeted over plans to open a mine in Oklahoma

The US Department of Defense will review Mandiant’s report, Bloomberg news agency said in a report. He said he would address concerns about “a lack of transparency and an overreliance on concentrated foreign sources of critical minerals in major U.S. supply chains for critical global civil and national security applications.”

John Hultquist, vice president of Mandiant Intelligence, told Bloomberg that the private sector is increasingly being hit by Chinese disinformation campaigns. He said these campaigns were becoming “increasingly aggressive”.

(with entries from Bloomberg)

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