The United States has formally accused the Chinese government of widespread destabilizing activities in cyberspace, including through a massive breach of Microsoft email systems used by many of the world’s big companies.
In a coordinated announcement on Monday, the White House and US allies in Europe and Asia alleged that the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the country’s civilian intelligence agency, has been using "criminal contract hackers" to conduct hacking operations around the world for personal profit.
Microsoft had previously claimed that hackers linked to the Chinese Ministry of State Security had infiltrated the software company’s email systems in March. But the statement from the White House marked the first time that the US formally accused China of paying hackers to carry out ransomware attacks to extort companies for millions of dollars.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged on Monday that China’s intelligence “has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain.”
“These contract hackers cost governments and businesses billions of dollars in stolen intellectual property, ransom payments, and cybersecurity mitigation efforts, all while the MSS had them on its payroll,” Blinken said.
While American officials have raised concerns with Beijing about the alleged malfeasance in cyberspace, Washington, for now, is stopping short of adopting new punitive measures as part of Monday's announcement.
However, a senior US official, speaking to CNN prior to the announcement, said the US was "not ruling out further actions to hold (China) accountable."
NATO and the European Union have traditionally been reluctant to directly point the finger at China, a major trading partner. But now even Germany, whose companies were hit hard by the Microsoft hacks, blamed the Chinese government.
“We call on all states, including China, to uphold their international commitments and obligations and to act responsibly in the international system, including in cyberspace,” according to a statement from NATO.
Until now, much of Washington’s blame game over hackings have been directed against Russia. The US has imposed a raft of sanctions in an effort to pressure Russia to rein in networks conducting cyberattacks from inside the country.
US officials claimed Monday that unlike hackings originated from Russia, the ransomware attacks involving Chinese hackers have closer links to the Chinese government.
In recent months, organizations that play critical roles across broad swaths of the US economy have been targeted by cyberattacks.