Cyber Espionage Rhetoric Heats up as China Claims NSA Hacked a Research University

by | Sep 26, 2022

The sort of international cyber espionage that is usually kept quiet is becoming more public as of late, as China has openly claimed that the NSA has waged an attack campaign on a government-funded research university with ties to the country’s military.

The default state of affairs in cyberspace has always been that countries quietly make attempts of this nature on each other all the time, with China’s state-backed hackers being far from shy about raiding other countries for intelligence. The public accusations of cyber espionage appear to be in response to Washington ramping up its own warnings to private industry about China’s advanced persistent threat (APT) groups targeting intellectual property.

China accuses NSA of persistent attacks on, data theft from research university

China claims that “tens of thousands” of recent attacks on Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an are part of a cyber espionage campaign by the NSA that has led to the theft of over 140GB of sensitive data. The claims come from China’s National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center (NCVERC), which says that it has conducted an investigation in partnership with one of the country’s leading antivirus firms.

The country has accused the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) of years of persistent hacking. TAO is a cyber warfare and intelligence unit that has been in operation since the late 1990s, and was one of the central parties involved in indiscriminate network data interception named in the Edward Snowden leaks; ever since those were published, China has repeatedly accused the unit of cyber espionage. China also claims that a NSA group called “Equation” has been running rampant in its domestic systems in recent years.

The unspoken rules of the cyber espionage world would usually make a research university fair game, and China has been known to target them both online and with old-fashioned analog spying. But this is far from the first time that Beijing has selectively responded in kind to accusations of spying; rhetoric also ramped up recently after the US accused Chinese hackers of exploiting Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities. The general purpose of picking and choosing incidents in this way is to give the rest of the world the impression of moral equivalency between the nations. China is also about to hold its annual Cybersecurity Week and may want to draw more eyes to its domestic firms offering cyber defense products.

A tactical flare-up of cyber espionage rhetoric

The US typically does not hesitate to accuse Chinese APT groups when investigations turn up evidence of their presence, and it has been sounding alarms in recent months about a large and organized campaign by these groups to steal intellectual property from private companies.

The US rejects the moral equivalency argument by pointing out that while it might engage in similar espionage, it does not direct its state hackers to steal company secrets for the purposes of making knockoff products or catching up on technology developments. If it was involved in the research university attack, it was likely due to its aerospace and space research that is in part applied to missile development.

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