Chinese Hackers Exploited Microsoft Vulnerability to Steal Emails From US State Dept

The State Department has revealed that hackers linked to China breached its email platform this year, stealing tens of thousands of emails from unclassified accounts. According to a Senate staffer, granted anonymity to share briefing details, State Department IT officials told lawmakers that 60,000 emails were stolen from 10 State Department accounts. Nine of those accounts belonged to people working in East Asia and the Pacific, while one worked in Europe, per the briefing details shared by the staffer for Senator Eric Schmitt.

The hackers, who reportedly used a token stolen from a Microsoft engineer to access the accounts, could steal information such as travel itineraries and diplomatic deliberations. The hack, which first hit State Department employees in May and reportedly impacted around 25 entities, including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s account, appeared to hone in on those dealing with Sino-US relations.

According to a State Department spokesperson, the agency detected “anomalous activity” and took immediate steps to secure its systems. The Department has yet to blame Beijing for the hack formally, but the US-China relationship was a common theme among the compromised emails, POLITICO reports.

How the hackers obtained a list of all State Department email addresses needed to be clarified. A spokesman for the Department said the breach primarily targeted “unclassified accounts and did not affect classified or sensitive information.” The breach was discovered on June 16, the same day that Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing, and the company started an investigation into the breach the next day, the same day it made its public announcement.

In a blog post, Microsoft’s security executive vice president Charlie Bell wrote that the company was investigating “an adversary based in China” and started its probe on June 16. That was the same day that Blinken left for his trip to Beijing.

The attack could exacerbate tensions between the United States and China, already frayed by trade friction and the U.S.-led sanctions on several Chinese sectors. The hackers were likely looking for economic and strategic information, but the company has not yet determined if any classified information was taken. The breach will only fuel calls on Capitol Hill for the federal government to strengthen its cybersecurity defenses and reconsider its reliance on a single vendor, such as Microsoft. In the meantime, the Department is bolstering its cyber defense capabilities by transitioning to hybrid environments and increasing multi-factor authentication. The Department also has plans to increase its cybersecurity budget.

Anthony Jones

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