In a major cyber attack this summer, tens of thousands of messages were stolen from the US State Department, targeting the US commerce chief and Washington’s top diplomat in China, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, according to a Senate staffer who spoke with Politico.
During a closed-door briefing on Wednesday, State Department officials shared new details about the breach. The hack affected ten government email accounts, most of which belonged to individuals working on “Indo-Pacific diplomatic efforts,” as per the unnamed staffer for Republican Senator Eric Schmitt. Among the information stolen were sensitive travel itineraries and diplomatic deliberations. Additionally, there was a potential compromise of ten Social Security numbers during the hack.
Microsoft was the first to report the cyber attack in July, attributing it to a “China-based threat actor” allegedly supported by the Beijing government. In a blog post, Microsoft stated that the hackers had espionage objectives but held their conclusions with only “moderate confidence.”
A total of 25 entities, including the State Department and other government agencies, were targeted in the June hack. The breach potentially involved hundreds of thousands of documents, with approximately 60,000 originating from the State Department alone, according to the Senate staffer.
The highest-level officials reportedly targeted in the hack were US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. While the State Department has not formally implicated China, Raimondo herself has publicly alleged Chinese responsibility for the hack. In a recent statement to NBC News, she revealed that she was hacked and raised the issue with her counterparts in Beijing during her last visit.
Raimondo emphasized that the US is engaged in fierce competition with China across all levels but pointed out that conflict is in no one’s interest, echoing sentiments expressed by other officials regarding US policy on China. President Joe Biden has consistently characterized China as America’s top competitor and has taken steps to strengthen the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region to address the challenges posed by the People’s Republic.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed to his Chinese counterpart that appropriate action would be taken by Washington in response to any state-sponsored hacks. However, he did not specify what actions would be taken. Beijing has rejected these allegations as disinformation, similar to how they have dismissed previous hacking claims.
With the increasing frequency and sophistication of cyber attacks targeting government agencies, it is crucial for countries to strengthen their cybersecurity measures and establish effective strategies for preventing and mitigating such incidents. The US and other nations need to work together to address the growing threat posed by state-sponsored hacking activities and ensure the security of sensitive information.