China is facing fresh allegations of cyber spying against the U.S. following discussion of the issue during high-level talks in Beijing this week.
Quoting senior U.S. officials late Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Chinese hackers broke into a network that contains U.S. government personnel files. The officials say the incident took place in March and appeared to be an attempt to access the personnel files of tens of thousands of federal employees who have applied for top secret security clearances.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security, who have requested not to be named, are quoted in U.S. media reports as confirming an intrusion took place, but they have not found "any loss of personally identifiable information."
At the close of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed the report.
"At this point in time, it does not appear to have compromised any sensitive material,” said Kerry, adding that the U.S. is still investigating the attack.
The issue has been a point of contention since the U.S. indicted five Chinese military members in May on charges of cyber espionage against U.S. businesses.
China has denied the allegations and has also accused Washington of cyber spying on Beijing.
Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that China is against hacking.
"We have consistently stressed that China resolutely opposes Internet hacking. On this issue, China does what it says. Some of the American media and cyber-security firms are making constant efforts to smear China and create the so-called China cyber threat. They have never been able to present sufficient evidence. We are deeply convinced that such reports and commentaries are irresponsible and do not deserve an argument," said Hong.
According to the New York Times report, hackers tried to obtain information from the databases of the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that oversees the federal workforce.
The Times says it is not yet clear how far the hackers had penetrated the agency's systems, where applicants for security clearances list personal information such as foreign contacts and past drug use.
Unnamed officials say authorities detected the threat and blocked them from the OPM's computer network.
Computer intrusions have been a major source of contention between the United States and China. Evidence revealed by Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the National Security Agency, shows the NSA ran programs to intercept the conversations of Chinese leaders and the military.