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China’s been hacking Navy contractors for 18 months, new report reveals

Sailors on the watch-floor of the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command monitor, analyze, detect and defensively respond to unauthorized activity within U.S. Navy information systems and computer networks. (Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Corey Lewis/U.S. Navy)
December 14, 2018

Chinese hackers have infiltrated U.S. Navy contractor networks and gained access to sensitive data, prompting the Navy secretary to order a cybersecurity review, according to a new report.

Over the past 18 months, Chinese hackers have carried out numerous cybersecurity breaches to gain access to Navy data and plans, in what is considered “some of the most debilitating cyber campaigns linked to Beijing,” according to a Wall Street Journal report Friday.

One U.S. government official told the WSJ that the Navy is a prime target for data breaches due to high-tech military data, and the branch has been affected by “troubling breaches over the past year.”

Previously stolen data includes that of the highest tech, classified military data from small and large Navy contractors alike, the report said.

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Among the stolen data was plans for a supersonic anti-ship missile to be carried on U.S. submarines in a project known as Sea Dragon. The hack also resulted in the theft of data from equipment signals, sensors and radios, as well as cryptographic systems, NBC News reported in June.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer directed a branch-wide cybersecurity review to identify weaknesses in cyber networks to counter foreign infiltration.

He reportedly received a preliminary review recently, which has prompted the Navy to begin formulating a plan of response.

“Attacks on our networks are not new, but attempts to steal critical information are increasing in both severity and sophistication,” Spencer said in an internal memo obtained by the WSJ in October. “We must act decisively to fully understand both the nature of these attacks and how to prevent further loss of vital military information.”

The hacks aren’t just compromising the highest of military secrets, however. The hacks demonstrate China’s ability to pose threats to secure military systems and networks, the report pointed out.

“They are looking for our weak underbelly,” one defense official told WSJ. “An asymmetric way to engage the United States without ever having to fire a round.”

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Former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert said that Chinese hacks can be intended to either steal data, or wreak havoc on computer systems.

“It’s extremely hard for the Defense Department to secure its own systems,” Bossert said. “It’s a matter of trust and hope to secure the systems of their contractors and subcontractors.”

Subcontractors of all branches are frequently attacked by hackers due to inadequate cybersecurity measures. Officials say subcontractors are not being held accountable for those inadequacies.

E.W. Priestap, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the U.S. must defend itself against China’s spying, which threatens “the future of the world,” the Washington Examiner reported Wednesday.

“Make no mistake: The Chinese government is proposing itself as an alternative model for the world, one without a democratic system of government, and it is seeking to undermine the free and open rules-based order we helped establish following World War II,” Priestap said. “Our businesses and our government must adapt in order to compete and thrive in this world.”