The U.S., U.K. and their allies formally attributed the Microsoft Exchange hack to actors affiliated with the Chinese government and accused Beijing’s leadership of a broad array of “malicious cyber activities,” escalating last week’s tensions between the White House and China.
The group of nations said Monday that the Chinese government has been the mastermind behind a series of malicious ransomware, data theft and cyber-espionage attacks against public and private entities, including the sprawling Microsoft Exchange hack earlier this year.
“The Chinese Government must end this systematic cyber sabotage and can expect to be held accountable if it does not,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
The White House said that it was joining with European nations to expose the scale of China’s activity and will take steps to counter it. President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday that the investigation isn’t finished but that the Chinese government bears responsibility.
“My understanding is that the Chinese government, not unlike the Russian government, is not doing this themselves, but are protecting those who are doing it and maybe even accommodating them being able to do it,” Biden said.
The group of nations attributing the attack to China includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and NATO, marking the first condemnation by the North American-European alliance on China’s cyber activities, according to a senior Biden administration official.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment outside of office hours. China’s Embassy in New Zealand on Tuesday called the allegations “totally groundless and irresponsible” and said it lodged a “solemn representation” with the government in Wellington.
“The Chinese government is a staunch defender of cyber security and firmly opposes and fights all forms of cyber attacks and crimes in accordance with law,” the Chinese statement said. “Given the virtual nature of cyberspace, one must have clear evidence when investigating and identifying cyber-related incidents. Making accusations without proof is malicious smear.”
In March, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing dismissed allegations that China-based government hackers were behind cyberattacks on Microsoft Exchange servers, accusing the company of making “groundless accusations,” and saying that tracing the source of cyberattacks is a “highly sensitive political issue.” China has long insisted that it is not a perpetrator but a victim of cyberattacks.
Monday’s announcement will add to the range of issues — including economic, military and political — the U.S. and China have been at odds over. It also marks yet another instance of the Biden administration rallying U.S. allies to issue coordinated statements condemning China.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said that the cyberattack was conducted from China and “resulted in security risks and significant economic loss for our government institutions and private companies.” The activities were linked to the hacker groups Advanced Persistent Threat 40 and Advanced Persistent Threat 31, according to an EU statement on Monday.
The U.S. also charged four Chinese nationals affiliated with the Ministry of State Security with a campaign to hack into computer systems of dozens of companies, universities and government entities in the U.S. and abroad between 2011 and 2018. The indictment, which was unsealed Monday, alleges that the hackers targeted, among other things, Ebola vaccine research.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that “responsible states” don’t harbor cyber criminals.
“These contract hackers cost governments and businesses billions of dollars in stolen intellectual property, ransom payments and cybersecurity mitigation efforts, all while the MSS had them on its payroll,” Blinken said, referring to China’s Ministry of State Security.
With the report Monday, the U.S. aimed to show how China’s Ministry of State Security uses criminal contract hackers to conduct unsanctioned cyber operations globally, including for its own personal profit.
“In some cases, we are aware that PRC government-affiliated cyber operators have conducted ransomware operations against private companies that have included ransom demands of millions of dollars,” the White House said in a fact sheet.
As part of the announcement, the National Security Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation detailed more than 50 tactics Chinese state-sponsored cyber hackers used when targeting U.S. and allied networks, including spearphishing emails with malicious attachments, exploitation of public-facing applications and drive-by compromise.
The agencies also provided advice and technical mitigations to confront threats, such as installing patches to protect against system vulnerabilities, strengthening login and password requirements and storing critical information on air-gapped systems.
Microsoft Corp. welcomed the global effort to attribute the attacks and called for future accountability.
“Attributions like these will help the international community ensure those behind indiscriminate attacks are held accountable,” said Tom Burt, corporate vice president, Customer Security & Trust. “Transparency is critical if we’re to combat the rising cyberattacks we see across the planet against individuals, organizations and nations.”
‘High Degree of Confidence’
Microsoft has previously attributed the hack to Chinese actors the software giant called Hafnium. The U.S.’s assessment appears to support Microsoft’s conclusions, attributing the hack to MSS-affiliated actors with “a high degree of confidence,” according to the fact sheet.
The attack against Microsoft’s Exchange email servers exploded over the course of two weeks between late February and early March. Microsoft first released software patches on March 2 to fix the critical vulnerabilities exploited in the hack. The attack exposed tens of thousands of victim email systems, including those of health-care facilities, manufacturers, energy companies and state and local governments.
Most ransomware attacks had previously been attributed to Eastern European and North Korean operators. Now the U.S. is accusing the Chinese government of not only leading malicious cyber operations, but also of hiring mercenaries, according to the Biden administration official. The claim accuses China of not only sponsoring espionage, but also supporting and possibly endorsing the work of cyber criminals executing these attacks.
Due to the breadth of victims around the world, the formal attribution came only after the U.S. had attained a high confidence level on the source of the hack, and the announcement could be made in concert with allies, the official added.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.