Canadian Gov’t Hit by China-based Hackers
Feb. 18 – Stockwell Day, president of Canada’s Treasury Board, said on Thursday that hackers – maybe from China – attacked computers in government departments responsible for overseeing the county’s budget and fiscal policy, leaving officials disconnected from the Internet for nearly two months.
“Every indication we have at this point is that our sensors and our cyber-protection systems got the alerts out in time, that the information doors were slammed shut,” Day said.
The motives remain unclear, but analysts have noted that such attacks tend to go after any information of financial significance. Documentation on funding for every federal program and proposals for new ones pass through the Treasury Board. Unreleased information on the budget could potentially give the hackers an advantage on predicting market movements.
“It was a significant one — significant that they were going after financial records,” he said.
According to reports by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and other Canadian news organizations, the attackers used the same approach as the one used by a China-based espionage ring that stole information from the Indian Defense Ministry. That gang was exposed by researchers at the University of Toronto.
The hackers used a technique known as “executive spear phishing.” First they took control of computers used by senior officials in the affected departments. They then generated messages that appeared to be from those officials to the departments’ information technology section. Email replies with sensitive passwords and other information granted them further access.
Other employees received emails from the senior officials’ email accounts that included Adobe PDF attachments. Those attachments started programs that searched for information on the ministries’ networks that was then sent back to the hackers.
Canadian news reports say that the government has traced the hackers back to an Internet protocol address in China. Other sources say Canada’s cyber spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment, tracked the hacking operation back to the Chinese embassy in Ottawa and to computer servers in Beijing.
Rafal A. Rohozinski, one of the researchers who documented the earlier Chinese attack, said it should be possible for the Canadian government to determine if the attack originated in China or if the hackers had merely disguised their location by using Chinese servers.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rohozinski said that China was the most likely source of the attack, although that did not mean that it was a government-approved move.
“There are more people online in China than anywhere else,” he said. “Most of them are young, so you see a lot of digital promiscuity coming from China.”
“[China's] got whole regiments in its military of hackers. You’re not talking about someone in an Internet café running off a laptop,” John Thompson, president of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute, told CTV’s Power Play. “You’re talking about hundreds of dedicated people who are as well-trained as a hacker to be in systemic attempts to probe government computers, corporate computers all over the world.”
“They’ve penetrated computers in a number of governments over the last few years and made attempts on many more,” Thompson added. “It’s not just the government, it’s every Canadian corporation, every Canadian businessman who deals with China.”
While Beijing denies supporting networks of hackers, some Western intelligence officials believe the Chinese government may turn a blind eye towards such conduct, or may even be complicit with such attacks.
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Ma Zhaoxu, rejected suggestions of a link to China as preposterous, “What you mentioned is purely fictitious and has an ulterior motive,” he said.
“Hacker attacks are a global concern of which China has also been a victim. The allegation that the Chinese government supports Internet hacking is groundless,” Zhaoxu said in response Thursday. “The Chinese government attaches importance to computer network security, and asks Internet users to abide by laws and regulations.”
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