Hackers working for the Chinese government are suspected to have breached the computer networks of the U.S. government personnel office, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The breach at the Office of Personnel Management included stealing identifying information of as many as 4 million federal workers. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement, saying that data from the Office of Personnel Management and the Interior Department had been compromised.
“The FBI is conducting an investigation to identify how and why this occurred,” the statement said.
The FBI suspects that hackers based in China are responsible for the breach, which is considered the most critical breach of federal employee data in recent years. The FBI was not alone in identifying the Chinese as being behind the cyber-attacks. Many U.S. officials and lawmakers also reminded of a great number of previous government hacks coming from Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry neither confirmed nor denied the accusations about China’s involvement in the cyber-attack.
Talking to NBC, ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that it would extremely difficult to prove who was behind the breach. “Without the thorough investigation, you jump to a conclusion so quickly. We think it is not scientific and is irresponsible.”
Speaking at a Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing on Friday, Lei said that China has nothing to do with the cyber-attacks and opposes all forms of it. “We hope the U.S. side will shed its suspicions,” he said and added that China itself is also a victim of cyber-attacks.
The cyber-attack could affect every federal agency
However, the attack was “extremely sophisticated,” and “that points to a nation state,” which is most likely China, said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She added that the cyber-attack was “yet another indication of a foreign power probing successfully and focusing on what appears to be data that would identify people with security clearances.”
Zhu Haiquan, Chinese Embassy spokesman in Washington, called such accusations “not responsible and counterproductive.”
“Cyber-attacks conducted across countries are hard to track and therefore the source of attacks is difficult to identify,” Haiquan said Thursday. He expressed his opinion that cyber-attacks can “only be addressed by international cooperation based on mutual trust and mutual respect.”
And while it is unclear who was behind the breach, one thing is certain: the cyber-attack could potentially affect every federal agency. The Office of Personnel Management has not provided any information as to how many of the 4 million workers affected by the cyber-attack are current or former employees or government contractors. The OPM is the human resources department for the US federal government, which has estimated that there are about 4.2 million federal employees, 1.5 million of whom serve as uniformed military personnel.
What is China trying to achieve?
The Pentagon issued a report in April which stated that hackers linked to the Chinese government regularly targeted U.S. military network systems in attempts to obtain intelligence information during 2014. U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement in which he said that hackers are one of the “greatest challenges we face on a daily bases.” He also claimed that there were numerous “massive data breaches” in the last few months, which have affected “millions of Americans.”
And that is a true statement, considering the fact that the OPM is basically the core of the entire federal government, which means the possible theft of 4 million federal employees’ data impacts almost every corner of the US government. The agency stated that it is offering credit monitoring and identity theft insurance for 18 months to individuals who might have been affected by what is believed to be the Chinese cyber-attack. Experts believe that stolen information could be used for financial gain or to identify intelligence targets, which would make sense if the Chinese were indeed behind the breach.
In April, Obama responded to the increasing number of cyber-attacks targeting the U.S. by initiating a sanctions program aimed at individuals and groups operating outside the U.S. that are threatening U.S. foreign policy, national security or economic stability. After launching the program, five Chinese military officers who were believed to have conducted economic espionage against the U.S. were indicted.
Could the hack be the beginning of cyber-war between the U.S. and China?
With the ongoing South China Sea debate, could the breach be “a push” from the Chinese side to heat up the situation? As it has been reported this week, there is an ongoing confrontation between China (and possibly also Russia) and the U.S. and its allies over the vast South China Sea, a body of water larger than the Mediterranean.
These tiny islands are located at the very middle of one of the key routes of shipping traffic, the total amount of which amounts up to $5 trillion per year. Furthermore, this is a highly important fishing area, at the bottom of which rich oil deposits are likely to be found. There have been reports about China’s heavy weapons being deployed to the area, which worries not only the U.S., but also the country’s Asian neighbors.
The cyber-attack could have given some kind of advantage – military, economic or strategic – to the Chinese government, or it was simply one of the ways to irritate Americans and provoke some U.S. officials into making a series of bold statements or even actions.