China was behind a major hack of Microsoft email systems earlier this year that affected computers around the globe, the White House announced Monday.
The formal accusation by President Joe Biden’s administration was backed by the European Union, United Kingdom and other allies that are typically hesitant to criticize China due to its economic power.
“The (People’s Republic of China’s) pattern of irresponsible behavior in cyberspace is inconsistent with its stated objective of being seen as a responsible leader in the world,” a senior Biden administration official said.
The hack, first disclosed in early March, exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange servers and compromised tens of thousands of computers and networks worldwide. The operation “resulted in significant remediation costs for its mostly private sector victims,” the White House said.
The hack was a Chinese “cyber espionage operation,” the administration official added.
China, meanwhile, allows “contract hackers” it uses in government operations to also conduct unsanctioned hacks for personal profit, the White House said.
The rogue “government-affiliated cyber-operators” have demanded hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms from private companies.
“The (People’s Republic of China’s) unwillingness to address criminal activity by contract hackers harms governments, businesses, and critical infrastructure operators through billions of dollars in lost intellectual property, proprietary information, ransom payments, and mitigation efforts,” the official said.
The White House announcement came shortly after the unsealing of a federal indictment charging three Chinese security officials with hacking a wide array of targets for the government between 2011 and 2018. The hacking operations were aimed at stealing information from aviation, defense, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime industries, to the benefit of China’s commercial sector, according to the Justice Department.
It’s unlikely the accused Chinese hackers will ever see a U.S. courtroom. Instead, the Justice Department hopes the indictment has a deterrent effect.
“China continues to use cyber-enabled attacks to steal what other countries make, in flagrant disregard of its bilateral and multilateral commitments,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.