Business Standard

Leaked files show secret world of China’s hackers for hire


The hackers offered a menu of services, at a variety of prices.

A local government in southwest China paid less than $15,000 for access to the private website of traffic police in Vietnam. Software that helped run disinforma­tion campaigns and hack accounts on X cost $100,000. For $278,000 Chinese customers could get a trove of personal informatio­n behind social media accounts on platforms like Telegram and Facebook.

The offerings, detailed in leaked documents, were a portion of the hacking tools and data caches sold by a Chinese security firm called I-soon, one of the hundreds of enterprisi­ng companies that support China’s aggressive state-sponsored hacking efforts. The work is part of a campaign to break into the websites of foreign government­s and telecommun­ications firms. The materials, which were posted to a public website last week, revealed an eight-year effort to target databases and tap communicat­ions in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, India and elsewhere in Asia. The files also showed a campaign to closely monitor the activities of ethnic minorities in China and online gambling firms.

Taken together, the files offered a rare look inside the secretive world of China’s state-backed hackers for hire. They illustrate­d how Chinese law enforcemen­t and its premier spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, have reached beyond their own ranks to tap private-sector talent in a hacking campaign that US officials say has targeted American companies and government agencies. “We have every reason to believe this is the authentic data of a contractor supporting global and domestic cyberespio­nage operations out of China,” said John Hultquist, the chief analyst at Google’s Mandiant Intelligen­ce.

Hultquist said the leak revealed that I-soon was working for a range of Chinese government entities that sponsor hacking, including the Ministry of State Security, the People’s Liberation Army and China’s national police. I-soon did not respond to emailed questions about the leak. Parts of China’s government still engage in sophistica­ted topdown hacks, like endeavouri­ng to place code inside US infrastruc­ture.

Among the informatio­n hacked was a large database of the road network in Taiwan, an island democracy that China has long claimed and threatened with invasion. Other informatio­n included internal email services or intranet access for multiple Southeast Asian government ministries, including Malaysia’s foreign and defense ministries and Thailand’s national intelligen­ce agency.

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