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U.S., UK Accuse China of Sweeping Cyberattacks, Voter Data Theft

The U.S. charged seven Chinese nationals with series of attacks. The UK said Chinese hackers accessed the details of 40 million voters.

(Bloomberg) -- The US and UK accused state-backed Chinese hackers of targeting politicians, companies and dissidents for years, as well as stealing troves of British voter data, in the latest revelation of cyberattacks that Washington and its allies have linked to President Xi Jinping’s government.

US officials said seven Chinese nationals targeted members of Congress and officials working at the White House and agencies including the Justice Department, as well as candidates, campaign staff and US companies. The hackers, part of a state-sponsored group known as APT31, have been charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusions and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Both the US and UK announced sanctions against two of those individuals, as well as a firm in Wuhan, China, called Wuhan Xiaoruizhi Science and Technology Co. The US alleged it was a front that “has served as cover for multiple malicious cyber operations” and the hackers had worked there as contractors.

The UK also accused China of accessing details of some 40 million voters held by the Electoral Commission, according to Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden.

The revelations Monday add to a growing list of cybersecurity breaches that the US and its allies say are backed by the Chinese government as part of a broader strategic and economic competition worldwide.

China disputed the claims, with a foreign ministry official in Beijing calling the UK’s accusations “disinformation” and a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington saying in a statement that the US has “jumped to an unwarranted conclusion and made groundless accusations.”

In January, the FBI said that it had dismantled infrastructure used by a Chinese state-backed group named Volt Typhoon, which targeted the US power grid and pipelines. Last October, security officials from the so-called Five Eyes — the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada — raised alarm about Chinese hacking and espionage in media interviews and public appearances. In 2015, security researchers suspected Beijing was behind the theft of more than 22 million US security clearance records.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Monday that an “increasingly assertive” China’s support for the hacks present an “epoch-defining challenge” and “the greatest state-based threat to our economic security.” The head of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher Wray, called them “continuous and brash efforts to undermine our nation’s cybersecurity and target Americans and our innovation.

Malicious Emails 

According to US authorities, some of the hacking activity successfully compromised the targets’ networks, email accounts, cloud storage accounts and telephone call records, with some surveillance of compromised email accounts lasting years.

The hacking campaign involved more than 10,000 malicious emails sent to targets that often appeared to be from prominent news outlets or journalists and appeared to contain legitimate news articles, US authorities said. The emails contained hidden tracking links that would allow information about the recipient, including their location and devices used to access email, to be transmitted to a server controlled by the defendants and others that they were working with.

That information was the used by the group to carry out more sophisticated hacking, the US Justice Department said, including compromising home routers and other electronic devices. 

Among the more alarming allegations, the US said that the hackers began targeting email accounts belonging to several senior campaign staff members for an unnamed presidential candidate in about May 2020. By that November, the hackers had sent emails containing tracking links to targets associated with additional political campaigns, including a retired senior US government national security official, according to the indictment.

US companies in the defense, information technology, telecommunications, manufacturing and trade, finance, consulting, legal and research industries were targeted by the group, and the victims include a provider of 5G network equipment in the US, an Alabama-based research corporation in the aerospace and defense industries and a Maryland-based professional support services company, according to the US.

In the UK, the National Cyber Security Centre said it’s “almost certain” APT31 conducted reconnaissance activity against British parliamentarians during a separate campaign in 2021 — though no parliamentary accounts were successfully compromised.

Britain summoned the Chinese ambassador in London, and Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in a separate statement that he raised the matter directly with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

For the UK, the episode marks an escalation in tensions that have been growing after Hong Kong passed security legislation that the UK says erodes freedoms in the city, contravening the handover deal signed between the two nations when governance of the territory was transferred to Beijing in 1997.

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