Chinese hackers went after Duke, 26 other universities, Wall Street Journal report says

Chinese hackers tried to steal military technology from Duke University and at least 26 other universities, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper’s account comes from a report by Accenture Security’s iDefense unit, which focuses on cybersecurity intelligence. The report says Chinese hackers targeted universities in the United States, Canada and Southeast Asia “as part of an elaborate scheme to steal research about maritime technology being developed for military use,” the Journal writes.

The hackers are “likely” associated with a Chinese state hacking program, iDefense cyber espionage expert Brandon Catalan said in a post on the company’s website Tuesday.

The hackers, he wrote, “targeted the unclassified network of multiple cleared defense contractors in Newport, RI, and exfiltrated around 614 gigabytes of data pertaining to a number of US Navy programs, including program Sea Dragon, as well as sensitive cryptographic and electronic warfare libraries.”

The Washington Post first reported on Chinese efforts to steal the Navy’s Sea Dragon technology in June 2018, breaking the story that the Chinese stole more than 600 gigabytes of information about the top-secret weapon and other classified information.

The Post described Sea Dragon as a project “to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines,” which the Navy hoped to deploy by 2020.

“The hackers targeted a contractor who works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, a military organization headquartered in Newport, R.I., that conducts research and development for submarines and underwater weaponry,” the Post reported last year.

The new report detailing how Chinese hackers stole so much information says it was not just one contractor, but more than two dozen research institutions around the world.

“The breach is part of China’s long-running effort to blunt the U.S. advantage in military technology and become the preeminent power in East Asia,” the Washington Post reported.

The new accusations of Chinese hacking come amidst a slew of reports of Beijing targeting the United States with digital espionage, including the indictment of two Chinese nationals late last year for stealing “personally identifiable information,” including social security numbers, for more than 100,000 Navy personnel, according to NBC News.

As the news of the indictment came out in December, the Trump administration came out hard against China for hacking. One FBI official said, China is “the most severe counterintelligence threat facing our country today,” according to Politico.

Chinese hacking has been a major point of contention in the trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing, Bloomberg reports. “Administration officials say the charges brought Thursday against two Chinese hackers known collectively as ‘Advanced Persistent Threat 10’ point to how brazen China has become in its efforts to vacuum up American know-how and how hard it will be to change what some see as institutionalized Chinese behavior,” Bloomberg writes.

Summarizing the research, iDefense said, the investigation “revealed a widespread campaign targeting multiple universities.” Along with Duke, those Universities included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Penn State, University of Hawaii and University of Washington, according to the Journal.

Contacted by McClatchy, a spokesman for Duke declined to comment on the report.

The iDefense report says hackers got into the networks with email phishing campaigns, which try to trick people into downloading attachments or clicking links so attackers can infect a target’s computer with malicious software.

“Universities are pretty willing to share information in pursuit of academic information,” iDefense’s Howard Marshall told the Wall Street Journal. “But as a lot of our adversaries have discovered, that is a sweet spot for them to operate.”

The common link among the hackers’ targets is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the Journal reports. “iDefense said it had high confidence that Woods Hole’s network likely had been breached by the Chinese hackers,” according to the newspaper.

“China will continue to target cleared defense contractors, IT and communications firms using its robust cyber espionage capabilities.” iDefense researchers write.

“Based upon China’s integrated and long-term military modernization plans, it could be assumed that Chinese-sponsored collection against maritime technologies that afford advantages to Western and allied naval forces will continue into the foreseeable future,” the report says.

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.