China is likely behind a sophisticated, decade-long cyber espionage campaign targeting governments, companies and journalists in Southeast Asia, India and other countries.
State-sponsored hackers have been stealing intelligence likely from classified government networks and other sources, pertaining to political and military issues such as disputes over the South China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing FireEye Inc., a United States cybersecurity company.
Beijing’s claims in the contested South China Sea overlap with those of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines — a US treaty ally.
Recently released satellite images show a dramatic expansion in China’s construction of artificial islands on disputed reefs, intensifying concerns about Beijing’s territorial ambitions.
FireEye said the hacking efforts are remarkable because of their duration — noting some elements have been in place since 2005 — and stand out because of their geographic focus.
Some of the cyber attacks have taken the form of specially crafted e-mails, written in recipients’ native languages, with documents that appear legitimate but contain malware, the report said.
Other attacks are intended to penetrate isolated networks, cut off from the internet for security purposes, by tricking their administrators into downloading malware on their home computers.
The malware is then implanted on the administrators’ portable drives, such as USB sticks, that are later plugged into the secure networks, infecting them, it said.
Teams of hackers appear to work in shifts and have developed malware in a consistent fashion over the years, indicating a high level of organization, FireEye said.
“Such a sustained, planned development effort, coupled with the group’s regional targets and mission, lead us to believe that this activity is state sponsored most likely by the Chinese government,” FireEye said in a report.
Asked to comment on the report, China’s Ministry of National Defense referred to its previous public remarks, without elaborating.
In the past, it has dismissed the accusations that China is behind cyber hacking as groundless and cited disclosures by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about US intelligence-gathering efforts as proof that Washington is a major offender.
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