Chinese hackers infiltrated various US government systems and absconded with approximately 60,000 emails from senior State Department officials in May of this year, as disclosed by CNN, citing a Senate insider.
The recently disclosed information from a Senate briefing, involving senators and their aides, sheds light on the alleged activities of Chinese operatives who apparently combed through the email accounts of senior US diplomats specializing in Pacific diplomacy. This occurred in the lead-up to a critical visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to China in June.
The hackers targeted the unclassified email accounts of nine State Department officials dealing with East Asia and the Pacific, as well as one official handling European affairs. This revelation was provided by a source within the office of Republican Senator Eric Schmitt from Missouri, who opted to remain anonymous. This individual attended a briefing conducted by senior State Department IT personnel for the Senate last Wednesday.
According to the Senate source, the hackers managed to access a comprehensive list of State Department email addresses. Such reconnaissance could serve as valuable intelligence for future hacking endeavors directed at the State Department, according to CNN.
During a press conference on Thursday, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller confirmed the breach, revealing that approximately 60,000 State Department emails were compromised. He stated, “This was a hack of Microsoft systems that the State Department uncovered and notified Microsoft about.”
While the State Department has not officially attributed the hack, Microsoft has attributed it to a “China-based” hacking group. Miller was quoted by CNN as saying, “We have no reason to doubt [Microsoft’s] attribution in this case.”
This stealthy cyber-espionage campaign exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft email software and commenced with the hackers infiltrating a Microsoft engineer, as confirmed by the company. Experts cited by CNN have noted that these cyber intrusions highlight China’s advancements in cyber capabilities, prompting both US lawmakers and Biden administration officials to scrutinize the government’s dependence on Microsoft technology.
Previous reports from CNN had already indicated that the cyber-espionage campaign had compromised the unclassified email accounts of notable figures including US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and Daniel Kritenbrink, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, who accompanied Blinken on his visit to China in June. Republican Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, a vocal critic of the Chinese government, also fell victim to the hackers.
In response to the hacking allegations, Chinese government officials have accused the US government of engaging in cyberattacks against China.
Senator Schmitt, in a statement to CNN, expressed appreciation for the briefing but asserted that his investigation into the hacks is ongoing. He emphasized the need to bolster defenses against such cyberattacks and intrusions in the future, and also urged a critical evaluation of the federal government’s reliance on a single vendor, potentially as a security vulnerability.
CNN quoted Schmitt as saying, “We need to harden our defenses against these types of cyberattacks and intrusions in the future, and we need to take a hard look at the federal government’s reliance on a single vendor as a potential weak point.”
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