The United States and its allies have publicly accused China of a worldwide cyber espionage campaign, with US secretary of state Antony Blinken saying the activity posed “a major threat to our economic and national security”.
Washington formerly attributed intrusions, such as that on servers running Microsoft Exchange earlier this year to hackers affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. Microsoft has already blamed China.
The ministry “has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cyber crime for their own financial gain,” Blinken said.
US security and intelligence agencies have detected more than 50 techniques and procedures which China state-sponsored actors use against US networks, Reuters news agency quoted a senior administration official as saying.
Activities include ransomware attacks by government-affiliated hackers who have targeted victims, including in the US, with demands for millions of dollars.
Washington has raised it concerns about Chinese cyber activities with senior Chinese officials, and “we’re not ruling out further action to hold the PRC accountable,” he added
The US was joined by the EU, UK, Nato, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada.
The EU said it is urging Chinese officials to rein in “malicious cyber activities undertaken from its territory” which have significant effects by targeting government institutions, political organisations and key industries among the 27 member states.
The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre said the Chinese-linked groups targeted maritime industries and naval defence contractors in the US and Europe, and the Finnish parliament.
“The cyber-attack on Microsoft Exchange Server by Chinese state-backed groups was a reckless but familiar pattern of behaviour,” said the UK’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab. “The Chinese government must end this systematic cyber-sabotage and can expect to be held to account if it does not.”
Nato called on China to uphold its international commitments and obligations “and to act responsibly in the international system, including in cyberspace”.
There was no immediate Chinese response, but the country’s officials have previously said it is also a victim of hacking and opposes all forms of cyber-attacks.
Along with the ally-backed claims against China, the United States’ justice department charged three Chinese security officials and a Chinese contract hacker with targeting dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the US, Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK.
The defendants, including officials in the Hainan state security department, tried to hide the Chinese government’s role by using a front company, according to the indictment.
The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries including aviation, defence, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime.
“These criminal charges once again highlight that China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” deputy US attorney general Lisa Monaco said.
Blinken said the indictments are an example of how the US will impose consequences on China.