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Chinese Hackers Targeted Commerce Secretary and Other U.S. Officials

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U.S. officials said Wednesday that Chinese hackers accessed the email accounts of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimond and other State and Commerce Department officials in the weeks before Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken visited Beijing in June. announced an invasion.

U.S. officials say an investigation is underway into a crime by Chinese hackers who are likely linked to the Chinese military and spy agencies. But U.S. officials downplayed the idea that hackers stole sensitive information, claiming no sensitive emails or cloud systems were breached. A State Department cybersecurity team first discovered the intrusion.

Raimondo, who has been the administration’s most outspoken critic of China, was among the targets, according to two U.S. officials. He has tightened controls on exports to China and threatened to cut off the supply of semiconductor technology to China if he provided Russia with U.S. semiconductor technology. Raimondo plans to visit China by the end of the summer.

Officials believe, based on a preliminary investigation, that she was the only cabinet-level official to have been successfully hacked. Officials said the hackers had access to other State Department email boxes, but were unable to retrieve the emails for Mr. Blinken’s Microsoft 365 account.

Officials said the attacks were aimed at individual email accounts, rather than the large-scale data breaches Chinese hackers have previously reportedly carried out. Biden administration officials declined to give a full explanation of which officials were targeted by the hackers.

Microsoft, which revealed the hack on Tuesday, said its research showed the hack began in May. The State Department discovered the intrusion on June 16, shortly before Mr. Blinken’s visit to Beijing, and notified Microsoft that day, according to US officials. He left Washington that night.

This visit was extremely important for both the United States and China. It was the first visit to China by a US Secretary of State in five years, and was intended to establish high-level communication channels and improve relations that had deteriorated. Since then, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has been in Beijing, and Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry is expected to arrive in Beijing on Sunday for four days of talks.

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met last November in Bali, Indonesia. stabilize the relationshipBut tensions between the two countries increased in early February when the Pentagon spotted and shot down a Chinese reconnaissance balloon hovering over the U.S. mainland. Mr. Blinken canceled a trip to China during that episode. A few weeks later, he publicly accused the Chinese government of considering sending military aid to Russia for use in Ukraine.

A senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the sensitive case, initially said the hack did not appear to be directly related to Mr. Brinken’s rescheduled trip. Other officials warned that the investigation into what material was stolen by the hackers is still in its early stages.

In a statement Wednesday, the State Department said after detecting “anomalous activity,” the government took steps to secure its systems and “will continue to monitor them closely and respond quickly to any further activity.”

The Commerce Department learned that Microsoft’s cloud-based email had been compromised after being contacted by Microsoft, which began seeking another breach after the State Department warned the company of the breach, according to a spokesperson. It is said that The Commerce Department has spearheaded efforts to impose export controls to prevent China’s military from accessing critical U.S. technology, which is the biggest impetus for the Chinese government.

After the State Department reported the hack to Microsoft, the company found that the hackers also targeted about 25 organizations, including government agencies. An official with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said some of these organizations were based abroad, and the number of US-based organizations affected was in the single digits.

U.S. officials said the hackers didn’t make any major intrusions and only targeted a small number of email accounts at each organization. However, neither U.S. officials nor Microsoft have disclosed exactly how many accounts they believe may have been compromised by Chinese hackers.

The US government has not officially attributed the attack to China, perhaps because the Biden administration is trying to get talks with China on track. But U.S. officials privately agreed with Microsoft’s claim that the hack was Chinese, and said there were indications of a sophisticated government-backed attack.

U.S. officials said the intrusion was a surgical procedure, in contrast to the 2019 and 2020 SolarWinds hacks, in which Russian intelligence agencies used vulnerabilities in the software supply chain to gain access to thousands of computer networks. explained that it was.

Spy agencies typically use intrusions into hostile networks wisely to extract as much information as possible without being detected.

The United States and China are embroiled in an intensifying information race, with both governments seeking to expand the other’s intelligence gathering. U.S. officials expect such espionage and hacking, but will address both the vulnerability exploited by Chinese hackers against the State Department and other potential security weaknesses in cloud computing. It said it was conducting a strong investigation.

US officials said Wednesday that State Department cybersecurity experts detected the intrusion by examining email access logs, which record which emails were hacked and when.

US officials say Microsoft is charging organizations additional fees for regular access to these logs. Some of the entities affected by the hack did not have that access, so the intrusion could not have been detected without the assistance of Microsoft. U.S. authorities are asking Microsoft to provide access logs to any organization with which it has a cloud computing contract.

The State Department is often targeted for hacking by foreign governments. Russian intelligence agencies have repeatedly targeted the State Department’s computer network. In 2014 and 2015, Russian hackers compromised the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, White House, and other critical but unclassified computer networks.

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