The US and its allies accused China of carrying out a massive cyberattack on tech giant Microsoft’s Exchange email server software earlier in the year. Along with the accusations, the US Department of Justice even charged four Chinese nationals in relation to the hacking. Though Chinese officials have decried the accusation, the open allegations present a different tactic from the US in terms of tackling cyberattacks on its corporations and soil.
Here is a closer look at how the narrative unfolded.
What were the Hacks?
In March, Microsoft Exchange email services were compromised by Chinese hackers through four ‘zero-day’ exploits. Zero-day exploits are vulnerabilities in a system which leave the company with little to no time to respond and fix flaws when they are hacked.
The exploits allowed the hackers to take control of computers belonging to thousands of corporations across the world. Even as Microsoft pushed out an update to deal with the exploits, the hackers continued to gain control over more devices. At risk were usernames and passwords, confidential information, intellectual property, private communication and other data that could be used for blackmail and extortion.
The attack, orchestrated by the Hafnium group, allegedly associated with the Chinese government, was so widespread that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had to step in and remove the malware from thousands of devices in an unprecedented move.
What this Means for US-China Relations?
While the US and its allies openly accused China of perpetrating the attack, no sanctions have followed the allegations. Realising the scope and source of a cyberattack is not an easy task, and nations rarely openly accuse each other of leading cyberattacks.
The US, European Union, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and NATO all decried China’s role in this attack.
US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said, "As evidenced by the indictment of three MSS (Ministry of State Security) officers and one of their contract hackers unsealed by the Department of Justice today (July 19), the United States will impose consequences on (Chinese) malicious cyber actors for their irresponsible behaviour in cyberspace."
Blinken alleged that China’s MSS has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain.
The statements from the US highlight a growing sentiment in the country to take more proactive and reactive measures to protect its national interests from state-sponsored cyberattacks. This year has already seen numerous cyberattacks against US corporations, mostly orchestrated by Russian groups, like the attack on Colonial Pipeline and the one on meat-packer JBS.
US-China relations are reaching an historic low as China seeks to cement its place as a global superpower vying with the existing one that many think is on the decline.
How China Pushed Back
China has called the allegations from the US and its allies "groundless" and "irresponsible." The first official statements came from the embassies in Australia and New Zealand, two nations that also jointly accused China along with the US.
"Given the virtual nature of cyberspace, one must have clear evidence when investigating and identifying cyber-related incidents," the Chinese embassy in New Zealand said.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)
First Published: IST