Australia, US allies accuse China of hacks

·3-min read

The United States and its allies have accused China of a global cyber-espionage campaign, mustering an unusually broad coalition of countries to publicly call out Beijing for hacking.

The United States was joined by NATO, the European Union, Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan and New Zealand in condemning the spying, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said posed "a major threat to our economic and national security".

Simultaneously, the US Department of Justice charged four Chinese nationals - three security officials and one contract hacker - with targeting dozens of companies, universities and government agencies in the United States and abroad.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, called the accusations against China "irresponsible".

"The Chinese government and relevant personnel never engage in cyber attacks or cyber theft," Liu said.

At an event about the administration's infrastructure plan on Monday, US President Joe Biden told reporters: "My understanding is that the Chinese government, not unlike the Russian government, is not doing this themselves, but are protecting those who are doing it. And maybe even accommodating them being able to do it."

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki was later asked why Biden did not directly blame the Chinese government in his response to a reporter's question.

"That was not the intention he was trying to project. He takes malicious cyber activity incredibly seriously," Psaki told reporters.

She also said the White House did not differentiate between Russia and China when it came to cyberattacks.

While a flurry of statements from Western powers represents a broad alliance, cyber experts said the lack of consequences for China beyond the US indictment was conspicuous. Just a month ago, summit statements by G7 and NATO warned China and said it posed threats to the international order.

Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called Monday's announcement a "successful effort to get friends and allies to attribute the action to Beijing, but not very useful without any concrete follow-up".

Some of Monday's statements even seemed to pull punches. While Washington and its close allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada held the Chinese state directly responsible for the hacking, others were more circumspect.

NATO merely said its members "acknowledge" the allegations against Beijing, while the European Union urged Chinese officials to rein in "malicious cyber activities undertaken from its territory".

The United States directly attributed intrusions such as the one that affected servers running Microsoft Exchange this year to hackers affiliated with China's Ministry of State Security. Microsoft had already blamed China.

US officials said the scope and scale of hacking attributed to China had surprised them, along with China's use of "criminal contract hackers" who Blinken said carry out state-sponsored activities and crime for financial gain.

Washington in recent months have accused Russian hackers of a string of ransomware attacks in the United States.

The senior administration official said US concerns about Chinese cyber activities have been raised with senior Chinese officials, and further action to hold China accountable was not being ruled out.

The United States and China have already been at loggerheads over trade, disputes about the South China Sea, a crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong and treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

Blinken cited the indictments as an example of how the United States would impose consequences.

The defendants and officials in the Hainan State Security Department, a regional state security office, tried to hide the Chinese government's role in the information theft by using a front company, according to the indictment.

The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries such as aviation, defence, education, government and health care, the Justice Department said.

Victims were in Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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