China blames US intelligence agency for university cyberattack

NSA used 40 programmes to hack into aerospace university, Beijing claims

September 5, 2022
Cyber attack
Source: iStock

Chinese officials have blamed a cyberattack targeting Northwestern Polytechnical University on US intelligence services.

In July, students and staff at the Xi’an-based institution reported having received phishing emails with subjects including “research” and “assessment” containing Trojan horse malware meant to steal data and personal information.

At the time, the institution, which specialises in aerospace engineering and marine technology, claimed the phishing attack did not cause massive a data leak or a major cybersecurity incident but said that it “exposed significant potential risk to the daily work and life of the university”.

More than a month later, Beijing has named the Office of Tailored Access Operation, part of the US National Security Agency (NSA), as the source of the attacks.

China’s National Computer Virus Emergency Response Centre alleged that the NSA had used upwards of 40 cyberattack weapons known to be linked to the agency, working from dozens of proxy servers in Europe and Asia to “continuously attack” Northwestern Polytechnical University.

US intelligence meant to steal the university’s key “network equipment configuration, network management data, operation and maintenance data and other core technologies data”, the centre said in its report

It accused 13 people in the US of being involved in the attacks, with “more than 60 contracts signed by the NSA with U.S. telecom operators”.

The Chinese organisation has blamed US intelligence agents for carrying out “tens of thousands” of malicious attacks on Chinese targets and for stealing more than 140 gigabytes of “high value data” in recent years.

It is not the first time Northwestern Polytechnical University has attracted the attention of the US government. In 2001, Washington put the institution on a list of entities that act “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”. The university has been linked to military research and appears to have been commissioned to set up China’s first drone test base.

The NSA declined to comment. The agency has not spoken publicly about the allegations, which come amid heightened geopolitical tensions between both countries, with China and the US accusing each other of cyberattacks and industrial espionage.

Universities have been caught in the crossfire on more than one occasion, with more than a dozen US-based Chinese scientists accused of spying to extract secrets from US academic labs under a controversial Trump era crackdown.

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