Chinese Hackers Target Alaska Government – Report

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Ahead of Alaska’s trade mission to China, hackers targetted state government and local utility firms

The scale of Chinese cyber offensive capabilities have been exposed after an American security firm said they had used computers at China’s Tsinghua University to target US energy and communications companies.

Specifically, cybersecurity specialists Recorded Future told Reuters that Chinese hackers targetted the Alaskan state government and local energy and communications companies, in the weeks before and after Alaska’s trade mission to China in May.

The Chinese hackers were reportedly hunting for vulnerabilities for potential espionage opportunities against the American firms.

America US China - Shutterstock © Aquir

Vulnerability probing

According to a report soon to be released by Recorded Future, the hackers apparently used computers at China’s Tsinghua University, which is said to be regarded as that country’s answer to MIT.

The Chinese hackers “closely inspected” the websites in May of Alaskan internet service providers and government offices. And then in June the Alaskan government was again scanned for software vulnerabilities.

Recorded Future has apparently give a copy of its report to law enforcement. The FBI declined to comment.

It is unclear whether the targeted systems were compromised, but the highly focused, extensive and peculiar scanning activity indicates a “serious interest” in hacking them, Priscilla Moriuchi, director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future and former head of the National Security Agency’s East Asia and Pacific cyber threats office was quoted by Reuters as saying.

“The spike in scanning activity at the conclusion of trade discussions on related topics indicates that the activity was likely an attempt to gain insight into the Alaskan perspective on the trip and strategic advantage in the post-visit negotiations,” Recorded Future said in the report.

Targeted organisations reportedly include Alaska Communications Systems Group, Ensco’s Atwood Oceanics, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the Alaska governor’s office and regional internet service provider TelAlaska.

A Tsinghua University official reportedly said the allegations were false.

Trade war

Of course the United States and China are currently locked in an unofficial trade war, as the United States government under President Trump has adopted an increasingly protectionist stance.

President Trump has imposed tariffs on $34 billion worth of goods from China, as of 6 July, and Beijing has responded with tariffs of its own.

On the tech side, President Trump has blocked Chinese deals such as Broadcom’s hostile takeover attempt of US-based Qualcomm.

And he has also blocked the expansion of China Mobile into the United States over national security grounds.

President Trump has also brought another Chinese firm, ZTE to its knees after it ignored US rules about trading with Iran and North Korea.

That forced ZTE in May to declare that “major operating activities of the company have ceased,” as a consequence of the seven year ban on US companies supplying with software and components.

ZTE is currently in the process of getting the ban lifted, but is facing stiff opposition from some lawmakers in Washington.

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