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Chinese intelligence suspected in “significant” breach of U.S. and European Government emails

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In a disconcerting development, Chinese cyber espionage groups successfully infiltrated government agencies in Europe and the United States, compromising sensitive information through a targeted hacking campaign. Both government officials and Microsoft have raised alarm bells about this “significant” breach, which affected over two dozen government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. This incident marks the second time in recent months that Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. government infrastructure have been acknowledged.

According to Microsoft and U.S. national security officials, the breach involved Chinese intelligence hacking into Microsoft email accounts belonging to government agencies, including the U.S. State Department, as well as Western European counterparts. The scale of the breach underscores the gravity of the situation and raises concerns about the Chinese government’s growing cyber collection capabilities.

Senator Mark Warner, chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, emphasized the need for close coordination between the government and the private sector to counter this evolving threat. The Senate Intelligence Committee is closely monitoring the situation, recognizing the increasing cyber capabilities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the importance of countering this espionage effort.

The State Department confirmed that it had been affected by the breach and assured the public that immediate measures had been taken to secure their systems, with continuous monitoring to swiftly respond to any further activities.

Microsoft, in a series of blog posts, revealed that the hacking group, codenamed Storm-0558, compromised Microsoft-powered email accounts and personal accounts associated with the targeted government agencies. The company’s cybersecurity teams mitigated the compromise after being notified in mid-June 2023. The advanced techniques employed by the threat actors heightened the risk of detection, making Microsoft’s swift response commendable.

While the specific agencies impacted were not disclosed, U.S. government officials brought the potential intrusion to Microsoft’s attention. The National Security Council highlighted the importance of maintaining high security standards among government procurement providers and promptly addressing vulnerabilities in cloud services.

Microsoft’s prominence as a major government contractor, coupled with its widespread usage of Exchange software, makes it an attractive target for cyberattacks. The company has made substantial investments in cybersecurity research and threat containment due to the prevalence of its software and its high-profile client base.

This incident serves as a reminder of the persistent threats posed by China’s state-backed cyber espionage efforts. Earlier this year, Chinese hackers targeted critical U.S. civilian and military infrastructure, including a naval base in Guam. The incident underscores the urgent need for enhanced cybersecurity measures and vigilance to mitigate such risks.

As U.S. national security officials have warned repeatedly, China represents an “epoch-defining” threat in the realm of cybersecurity. The recent breach serves as a timely reminder of the ongoing challenges faced by governments and organizations in safeguarding sensitive data and countering evolving cyber threats.

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