Chinese government steals warfare data from Navy contractor
WASHINGTON — China has stolen data related to naval warfare from the computers of a Navy contractor, U.S. officials said Friday, in another step in the long-running cyberwar between two global adversaries.
The breach occurred this year, the officials said, when Chinese government hackers infiltrated the computers of a company working on a Navy submarine and underwater programs contract. The company, which was not identified, was doing work for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which is based in Newport, R.I.
Officials said the data gleaned by China was unclassified.
Navy officials declined to speak publicly about the hack, which was first reported by The Washington Post.
But in a statement, Lt. Marycate Walsh, a Navy spokeswoman, cited “measures in place that require companies to notify the government when a cyberincident has occurred that has actual or potential adverse effects on their networks that contain controlled unclassified information.”
She said it would be “inappropriate to discuss further details at this time.”
China and the United States have been locked in an escalating fight over cyber and military technology, with Beijing making rapid gains in recent years. U.S. officials — from both the Trump administration and the Obama administration before it — concede that Washington has struggled to deter Chinese hacking, and have predicted the cyberattacks will increase until the United States finds a way to curb them.
The theft of the Navy system is hardly the largest, or the most sensitive, of the designs and systems stolen by Chinese hackers over the years. But it underscores a lesson the U.S. government keeps learning: No matter how fast the government moves to shore up it cyberdefenses, and those of the defense industrial base, the cyberattackers move faster.
The plans for the F-35, America’s most expensive fighter jet in history, were taken more than a decade ago, and the Chinese model looks like an almost exact copy.
A People’s Liberation Army unit, known as Unit 61398, was filled with skilled hackers who purloined corporate trade secrets to benefit Chinese state-owned industry. But many of its targets were defense related as well. Members of the unit were indicted in the last two years of the Obama administration, but they are not likely to come back to the United States to stand trial.
The most sophisticated hack of U.S. data took place at the Office of Personnel Management. It lost the files of about 21.5 million Americans who had filed extensive questionnaires for their security clearances. The forms listed far more than Social Security numbers and birth dates. They detailed medical and financial histories; past relationships; and details about children, parents and friends, particularly non-U.S. citizens.
The United States and China are also tangling over Beijing’s militarization of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis harshly criticized the Chinese government for continuing to militarize a string of islands in the South China Sea, calling the presence of advanced military equipment and missiles there a flagrant show of military power.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to be identified in discussing the issue, said the Navy was investigating the breach with the help of the FBI.