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Chinese hackers breached the email of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and State Department officials in the weeks before State Secretary Antony Blinken visited Beijing in June, New York Times reported citing US officials.
The investigation is underway but the US officials, on Wednesday, downplayed the idea that the Chinese hackers, who are likely to be part of the military or spy services, have stolen the sensitive information, insisting that no classified email or cloud systems were penetrated.
The State Department’s cybersecurity team first discovered the intrusion.
Raimondo, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of Beijing in the administration, was among the targets, according to two US officials.
Recently, she tightened export controls on China, threatening to cut off the country’s supply of US semiconductor technology if it provides the chips to Russia. Raimondo is also expected to visit China by the end of the summer, reported New York Times.
Based on their preliminary investigation, officials believe she was the only cabinet-level official to be successfully hacked. The hackers were not able to acquire emails in Blinken’s Microsoft 365 account, even as they got access to other State Department email boxes, officials said.
Multiple officials said the attack was aimed at individual email accounts, rather than a large-scale exfiltration of data, which Chinese hackers are suspected of having done before.
US President Joe Biden’s administration officials declined to give a full accounting of which the hackers had targeted officials.
Earlier, on Tuesday, Microsoft revealed that the Chinese hackers with the intention to collect intelligence on the US have gained access to government email accounts.
The attack was targeted, according to a person briefed on the intrusion into the government networks, with the hackers going after specific accounts rather than carrying out a broad-brush intrusion that would suck up enormous amounts of data, as per the New York Times.
It is pertinent to mention that the State Department discovered the intrusion on June 16 and informed Microsoft that day, just ahead of Blinken’s trip to Beijing, a US official said. He departed from Washington that evening.
After Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen also visited Beijing. President Biden and Xi Jinping, Chinese Premier, agreed in a meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last November to try to stabilize relations, but tensions between the two nations ramped up when the Pentagon discovered and shot down a Chinese spy balloon that was floating over the continental United States in early February.
After the discovery of the spy balloon hovering in US skies, Blinken’s visit to China in February was cancelled.
In a statement on Wednesday, the State Department said that after detecting “anomalous activity,” the government took steps to secure the systems and “will continue to closely monitor and quickly respond to any further activity.”
After the State Department reported the hack to Microsoft, the company found that the hackers had also targeted some 25 organizations, including government agencies, according to New York Times.
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