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Homeland Security

China Suspected of Cyberattacks Targeting US Organizations

By Asim Kashgarian February 09, 2022

Media giant News Corp is investigating a cyberattack that has accessed the email and documents of some of its employees and journalists.

On Friday, New York-based News Corp, whose entities include The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, sent an internal email to staff, stating that it had been the target of "persistent nation-state attack activity."

"On January 20th, News Corp discovered attack activity on a system used by several of our business units," David Kline, News Corp chief technology officer, wrote in the email.

News Corp said that as soon as it discovered the attack, it notified law enforcement and launched an investigation with the help of Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm.

The cyberattack affected a "limited number of business email accounts and documents" from News Corp headquarters as well as its News Technology Services, Dow Jones, News UK and New York Post businesses.

"Our preliminary analysis indicates that foreign government involvement may be associated with this activity, and that some data was taken," Kline wrote. "We will not tolerate attacks on our journalism, nor will we be deterred from our reporting."

"Mandiant assesses that those behind this activity have a China nexus, and we believe they are likely involved in espionage activities to collect intelligence to benefit China's interests," Dave Wong, Mandiant vice president and incident responder, said in an email to VOA.

Wong's suspicion echoed that of human rights groups, which have also faced an increase in cyberattacks thought to originate from a "foreign government" they also believe is China.

Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., told VOA in an email Friday that rather than making allegations based on speculations, he hoped there could be "a professional, responsible and evidence-based approach" to identifying cyberattacks.

"China is a staunch defender of cybersecurity and has long been a main victim of cyberthefts and attacks," Liu said. "China firmly opposes and combats cyberattacks and cybertheft in all forms."

Rights groups targeted

Cyberattacks might be used to intimidate those who are critical of the Chinese government, according to Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) in Washington.

"They might want journalists to think twice before they continue to do critical work uncovering issues in the country," Irwin told VOA, adding that his organization had also seen a major spike in cyberattacks believed to be from China in recent weeks, targeting its website and staff email.

Uyghur rights groups such as UHRP have been calling for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics on social media, using the hashtag #GenocideGames and citing allegations of human rights abuses of Uyghurs and other Turkic ethnic groups in Xinjiang, where China has been accused of arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million people in internment camps.

On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that pro-China accounts had flooded Twitter messages with the #GenocideGames hashtag. Hashtag flooding is the act of hijacking a hashtag on social media platforms to dilute or change its meaning.

In early December, the U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, citing China's "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses."

Beijing denies accusations of mass detention and says that all ethnic groups in Xinjiang "live in together in harmony" and experience "healthy and balanced development."

Tahir Imin, a Uyghur activist and founder of the Washington-based Uyghur Times, says his news organization has long been the target of cyberattacks he believes are coming from China.

Volexity, a Washington-based cybersecurity firm, stated in a September 2019 blog post that "cyberspace has become a battleground for the Uyghur people. The level of surveillance occurring in China against Uyghurs extends well beyond their borders and has fully entered the digital realm."

"Recently, especially starting from January 10, 2022, we have seen more cyberattacks by unknown hackers aimed at the main index of English and Chinese websites of Uyghur Times," Imin told VOA, adding that his organization's email server had also been the target of similar attacks.

FBI assessment

In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that in the U.S., Beijing had unleashed "a massive, sophisticated hacking program that is bigger than those of every other major nation combined."

"They're not just hacking on a huge scale but causing indiscriminate damage to get to what they want," Wray said. "Like in the recent Microsoft Exchange hack, which compromised the networks of more than 10,000 American companies in a single campaign alone."

According to Salih Hudayar, president and founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, a Washington-based Uyghur independence advocacy group, his group's website has seen a "severe increase" in cyberattacks in recent weeks, especially since the beginning of the Beijing Winter Games.

"It seems, on average, in the past 24 hours (per hour), we had over 15 million attacks against our website," Hudayar told VOA, adding that most of the attacks were originating from Singapore.

He said he believed Singapore was being used "to mask the true location" of the origin of the attacks. "We definitely think China is behind this attack," Hudayar said.

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