New report details one of history’s “largest ever” cyber espionage operations

GCHQ center in Cheltenham, EnglandA new report authored by a consortium of government and private organizations in Britain has revealed the existence of a computer hacking operation, allegedly based in China, that is said to be “one of the largest ever” such campaigns globally. The operation is believed to have compromised sensitive information from an inestimable number of private companies in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. The report was produced by a consortium of public and private organizations, including BAE systems and the London-based National Cyber Security Centre, an office of the United Kingdom’s signals intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters. It details the outcome of Operation CLOUD HOPPER, which was launched to uncover the cyber espionage activities.

According to the report, the attacks were first launched several years ago against targets in Japan’s government and private sector. But after 2016, they spread to at least 14 other countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is claimed that the attacks are “highly likely” to originate from China, given that the targets selected appear to be “closely aligned with strategic Chinese interests”. The authors of the report have named the hacker group APT10, but provide limited information about its possible links —or lack thereof— with the Chinese government.

The report claims that APT10 uses specially designed malware that is customized for most of their targets, thus constituting what experts describe as “spear fishing”. Past successful attacks have already resulted in an “unprecedented web of victims” who have had their information compromised, say the authors. The victims’ losses range from intellectual property to personal data. One of the report’s authors, Dr. Adrian Nish, who is head of threat intelligence at BAE Systems, told the BBC that it is currently impossible to estimate the number of organizations and agencies that have been impacted by APT10’s activities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 April 2017 | Permalink

Advertisements

FBI accuses US State Department official of contacts with Chinese spies

US Department of StateAn employee of the United States Department of State has been charged with lying to authorities about her contacts with Chinese intelligence operatives, who gave her money and gifts in return for information. Candace Claiborne, 60, joined the Department of State in 1999 as an office management specialist. She lives in Washington, DC, but has served overseas in American diplomatic facilities in Baghdad, Iraq, Khartoum, Sudan, and China, where she was stationed in Beijing and Shanghai. According to information provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Claiborne had a top security clearance, which required her to report contacts with foreign nationals.

However, federal prosecutors said earlier this week that Claiborne interacted on a regular basis with Chinese intelligence personnel without informing her employer. According to court documents, her contacts with the Chinese were extensive and occurred from 2011 until earlier this year. The Chinese gave Claiborne gifts, including computers and smartphones, tuition-free studies in a Chinese technical school, and an all-expenses-paid holiday to Thailand. They also gave her a regular stipend and provided her with a furnished apartment abroad, according to prosecutors. In return, Claiborne allegedly gave the Chinese information relating to American economic policy on China, among other topics.

It appears that the FBI monitored the State Department employee for a while, after securing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant. When it confronted Claiborne, she apparently denied the accusations and lied to FBI agents. She is now charged with obstruction of justice and providing false statements to the FBI. Claiborne is currently under house arrest and will remain there until April 18, when she will appear at a preliminary hearing in Washington. She is reportedly facing a maximum of 25 years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 March 2017 | Permalink

China has 5,000 spies in Taiwan, says official amidst espionage arrests

China and TaiwanA Taiwanese government official has alleged that China maintains an army of more than 5,000 spies in Taiwan, many of whom have infiltrated the highest levels of government and industry. The allegation came after two sensational arrests were made in Taiwan last week, of people accused of spying for Beijing. Taiwanese counterintelligence officers reportedly arrested a bodyguard of Annette Lu, Taiwan’s former vice president. The bodyguard, who has been identified in Taiwanese media as Wang Hong-ju, has been charged with receiving payments from his Chinese intelligence handler in return for providing information about Mrs. Lu. This incident followed another arrest, made earlier in the week, this time of a Chinese man who is believed to have initially come to Taiwan as a student. Zhou Hong-xu is accused of trying to recruit officials in the Taiwanese government by offering them money.

Following reports of the arrests, Taiwanese media quoted an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that Beijing maintains “about 5,000 individuals” who spy in Taiwan. These agents are allegedly tasked with “collecting state secrets” in the island country, over which China claims ownership. The anonymous Taiwanese official said that authorities in Taipei had uncovered no fewer than 60 espionage plots linked to China since 2002. Less than a third of those were uncovered before 2009, said the official. The year is important, because it marks the time when communications and transportation systems between the two nations were reestablished after decades of mutual isolation. The ease with which people from the two countries can travel in each other’s territory has increased exponentially since 2009. But so have instances of espionage by China, said the Taiwanese official.

Asked about the alleged targets of Chinese espionage in Taiwan, the official said that nearly 80 percent of identified cases of espionage by Beijing’s agents were aimed at military targets, with only 20 percent focusing on the civilian sector. However, the apparent disparity in numbers does not mean that China shows more interest in Taiwanese military secrets. Rather, the Taiwanese military has better counterintelligence defenses and thus a higher detection rate than the country’s civilian sector, said the anonymous source.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 March 2017 | Permalink

Accused Chinese nuclear spy ‘to plead guilty’ in US court this week

China General Nuclear PowerA man at the center of the first case of Chinese nuclear espionage in United States history will be pleading guilty on Friday, according to court documents. This could mean that the alleged spy has decided to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) details of Chinese nuclear espionage in the US. The accused man is Szuhsiung ‘Allen’ Ho, a Taiwanese-born engineer and naturalized American citizen. Ho was arrested by the FBI in April on charges of sharing American nuclear secrets with the government of China.

The investigation began when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) contacted the FBI with concerns about Ching Huey, a TVA senior manager. When the FBI questioned the TVA executive, he admitted that Allen Ho had paid him in exchange for information about nuclear power production. He also said that he had traveled to China for that purpose, and that the Chinese government had covered his travel expenses. A few months later, the FBI arrested Ho in Atlanta, Georgia, and charged him with espionage. The FBI also claims that Ho’s US business firm, Energy Technology International, gave secrets to China General Nuclear Power, a Chinese company that supplies nuclear energy technology to the Chinese government. According to Ho’s indictment, he used his technical expertise and business acumen to give Beijing US government information that could help China’s civilian and military nuclear program.

Government prosecutors argued successfully that Ho, who has close family in China, including a son from a former marriage, could flee there if freed. Prosecutors also claim that Ho has access to several million US dollars abroad. For the past months, Ho’s defense denied the espionage accusations against him. But on Tuesday, a newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Ho has been charged, said that the jailed engineer is preparing to plead guilty in court on Friday. Observers believe that this move by Ho’s legal team means that he has decided to cooperate with the FBI. He could therefore provide US authorities with information about Chinese nuclear espionage in the US, and secrets on “the inner workings of China’s nuclear program”, said the newspaper.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 4 January 2017 | Permalink

Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink

Senior anti-corruption official to lead China’s main spy organization

Chen WenqingA senior Chinese official with a leading role in the country’s ongoing anti-corruption crusade has been appointed head of the nation’s spy agency, which has undergone extensive purges in recent years. Chen Wenqing, 56, will be replacing Geng Huichang as Minister of State Security. Geng, 65, will be retiring after nearly a decade at the helm of China’s intelligence and security agency, which is responsible for intelligence collection, counterintelligence and political security. Chen’s appointment was approved on Monday by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. It comes a year after he was appointed as the senior Communist Party representative at the Ministry of State Security.

Chen, a native of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, joined the police force at a young age and rose through the ranks to become the local director of the Ministry of State Security’s local field office. After eight years in that post, he was appointed provincial director of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party’s agency responsible for combating corruption among Party apparatchiks. In 2012, Chen became the youngest-ever deputy director of the CCDI, working under the commission’s chairman, Wang Qishan. From that post, Chen helped lead a massive anti-corruption campaign that resulted in the purging of over 100 senior Communist Party officials on charges of dishonesty and sleaze. Those purged included several senior officials at Ministry of State Security. Among them was Zhou Yongkang, Secretary of China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees the country’s security, intelligence and law enforcement institutions. The crackdown also targeted the deputy director of the Ministry of State Security, Ma Jian, and its once-powerful Beijing director, Liang Ke.

In recent years, several officials from the CCDI, who are seen by many as uncorrupted and incorruptible, have filled the positions of former Ministry of State Security bureaucrats who were fired during the government’s anti-corruption campaign. Chens’ appointment makes him the third senior CCDI official to be appointed to a senior post in the Ministry of State Security. Some experts believe that Chen’s move affirms the growing power of the CCDI, which has been the main implementation vehicle of President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anticorruption campaign that has gripped China since his rise to power in 2012.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2016 | Permalink

Holland suspends its ambassador to China due to suspected honey trap

Holland Embassy in ChinaThe Dutch government has suspended its ambassador to China and has launched an official investigation into an alleged secret relationship between the ambassador and a female Chinese employee at the Dutch embassy. The ambassador, Ron Keller, is a career diplomat and senior member of the Dutch foreign service corps, who has served in Russia and Turkey among other international posts. He assumed duties as Holland’s ambassador to China in late 2015. In December of that year, he arrived in Beijing and took command of one of the largest Dutch embassies in the world.

Last weekend, however, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that Keller had been suspended from his post after it was alleged that he had a secret affair with an employee at the embassy. The employee, whose name has not been released, is reportedly a female Chinese national. Her position at the embassy is not known, but is thought to be of a clerical nature. Foreign diplomats stationed in China —whether married or single— are routinely warned to avoid having intimate relationships with Chinese nationals due to concerns that the latter may be in the service of Chinese intelligence. Some refer to this practice as a ‘honey trap’.  In 2011, Taiwan suffered its most serious espionage case in over half a century when it was revealed that the director of the Taiwanese military’s Office of Communications and Information fell for a “tall, beautiful and chic” Chinese female operative, who held an Australian passport, but later turned out to be a Chinese intelligence officer. In 2014, a leaked British military report warned United Kingdom government officials of attempts by Chinese intelligence services to compromise them using sexual entrapment.

De Telegraaf said it contacted the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs about Keller’s suspension. In a statement, the ministry confirmed the diplomat’s suspension but said that it could not comment on the case. The newspaper reported that Keller is currently back in Holland and that his return to Beijing in an official capacity is not likely.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 October 2016 | Permalink