China Seen as Likely Culprit in UK Defense Ministry Hack

The hackers breached the payroll system managed by an external contractor, according to UK officials. The system has been taken offline to secure it against the threat.

Bloomberg News

May 7, 2024

2 Min Read
computer systems

(Bloomberg) -- China was likely behind a recent hack into the personal data of British armed forces personnel, according to people familiar with the matter, fueling concerns about an escalation in Beijing’s spy activity.

The hackers breached the payroll system used by Britain’s defense ministry and obtained the names and bank account details of members of the army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and some veterans, according to UK officials, who asked not to be identified because the investigation was not public. In a few thousand cases, personal addresses were included in the compromised information, they added.

The incident comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Europe this week to attempt to smooth out relations as the European Union adopts a more hawkish position on Beijing. The hack adds to an increasing number of cyberattacks that the UK, the US and their allies say are backed by China. 

Defense Secretary Grant Shapps will make a statement to Parliament on Tuesday afternoon outlining a “multi-point plan to support and protect personnel,” a ministry spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

The cyberattack was initially reported by Sky News. 

The UK’s security services are investigating whether China is attempting to build profiles of members of the armed forces and people in other sensitive roles through a series of hacks of different databases holding personal information, according to the people.

Related:Study Reveals Massive Gap in Cyber Defenses

“Relevant remarks of the UK politicians are absurd,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said Tuesday at a regular press briefing in Beijing. “China firmly opposes and fights all forms of cyberattacks. We also firmly reject using the cybersecurity issue politically to smear and vilify other countries.”

Xi met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Monday in his first visit to the EU in five years. He is also visiting Serbia and Hungary.  

While in Paris, Xi called on France to help fend off a “new Cold War” as the EU increasingly aligns with US concerns. The EU and China are at odds on multiple fronts, including Russia’s war in Ukraine and international commerce.

The defense ministry’s payroll system was managed by an external contractor and it has been taken offline to secure it against the threat, the people said, who described the hack as significant. 

Shapps is unlikely to name a suspected perpetrator on Tuesday and it may take several weeks before the government publicly attributes blame, according to the people.

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden accused China of accessing the details of some 40 million voters held by the Electoral Commission. The UK also attributes a 2021 hack against British parliamentarians to state-backed Chinese hackers.

In March, the US and UK announced sanctions against two Chinese individuals that they said were part of a group targeting politicians, companies and dissidents.

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