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A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters

China hackers accused of attacking Japanese defence firms

Cyber attacks may be aimed at securing information about Tokyo’s policies towards North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, says US security firm

Chinese hackers have targeted Japanese defence companies, possibly to get information on Tokyo’s policy toward resolving the North Korean nuclear impasse, according to cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc.

The attacks are suspected to come from a group known as APT 10, a China-based espionage group that FireEye has been tracking since 2009. One of the lures used in a “spear-phishing” email attack was a defence lecture given by former head of Unesco, Koichiro Matsuura. Two attacks took place between September and October 2017, the firm said.

“Lure content related to the defence industry suggests that a possible motive behind the intrusion attempt is gaining insider information on policy prescription to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue,” said Bryce Boland, chief technology officer for the Asia-Pacific region at FireEye.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a faxed request for comment on Friday. After a similar FireEye report involving US targets last month, ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China opposed all kinds of cyberattacks.

The suspected attacks coincided with a dramatic escalation in tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme as Kim Jong-un tested a hydrogen bomb and US President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the country. The US and Japan have been coordinating their diplomatic and military pressure campaigns against the country and neighbouring China is anxious to avoid a clash on its border.

Tensions have eased since the two Koreas started talking ahead of the Winter Olympics and Trump granted an unprecedented meeting with the North Korean leader. Earlier this month, the foreign ministers of China and Japan agreed to work closely to push the regime to surrender its nuclear weapons programme, although Japanese officials continue to express scepticism about Kim’s willingness to make a deal.

The latest cyberattacks mirror other recent hacks with geopolitical overtones investigated by FireEye. Among the most recent, a wave of incursions on mainly US engineering and defence companies linked to the South China Sea where China’s claims for more than 80 per cent of the water clash with five other nations. The website of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party was attacked months after the party won elections two years ago, securing its leader Tsai Ing-wen the presidency.

“We believe APT 10 is primarily tasked with collecting critical information in response to shifts in regional geopolitics and frequently targets organisations with long research and development cycles,” Boland said, citing firms in construction and engineering, aerospace and military, telecommunications and hi-tech industries.

In an unusual development, the hackers inserted lines of text in the malware associated with the Japanese attacks mocking the security researchers. Such gems included, “I’m here waiting for u,” “POWERED BY APT632185, NORTH KOREA,” and “According to the analysis report, Some Japanese analysts have always been portrayed as a bit of joke”.

Also under attack since November 2017 have been Japanese health care companies. “China’s new push on pharmaceutical innovation as a national priority, along with rising cancer rates, is likely to drive future espionage operations against the health care industry,” Boland said.

Mandiant, a unit of FireEye, alleged in 2013 that China’s military might have been behind a group that had hacked at least 141 companies worldwide since 2006. The US issued indictments against five military officials who were purported to be members of that group.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing ‘hacked Japanese firms’ amid nuclear scare