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New Zealand Links Parliament Hacking to China State-Backed Group

New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau Director-General Andrew Clark speaks in Wellington, March 26, 2024. Hackers linked to the Chinese government launched a state-sponsored operation that targeted New Zealand's Parliament in 2021, officials said.
New Zealand's Government Communications Security Bureau Director-General Andrew Clark speaks in Wellington, March 26, 2024. Hackers linked to the Chinese government launched a state-sponsored operation that targeted New Zealand's Parliament in 2021, officials said.

New Zealand said Tuesday a Chinese state-sponsored hacking operation targeted New Zealand’s parliament in 2021, an allegation that came a day after the United States and Britain took actions in response to their own attacks by China-backed hacking groups.

New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) said it linked malicious cyber activity against the country’s parliament to the group Advanced Persistent Threat 40, which the GCSB said is linked to China’s Ministry of State Security.

“The use of cyber-enabled espionage operations to interfere with democratic institutions and processes anywhere is unacceptable,” Minister Responsible for the GCSB Judith Collins said in a statement.

China’s Embassy in Wellington rejected New Zealand’s accusations, calling them “groundless and irresponsible.”

“We have never, nor will we in the future, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, including New Zealand,” the embassy said in a statement.

American and British authorities announced criminal charges and sanctions on Monday against seven hackers believed to be living in China and linked to the Chinese government.

The operation was carried out by a hacking group called Advanced Persistent Threat 31, or APT31, an extensive Chinese state-backed operation targeting U.S. officials, journalists, corporations, pro-democracy activists and the United Kingdom's election watchdog.

The campaign, which started in 2010, sought to spy on and intimidate high-level political figures and critics of the Chinese government. It also intended to gather trade secrets from American corporations.

"The United States is focused on both disrupting the dangerous and irresponsible actions of malicious cyber actors, as well as protecting our citizens and our critical infrastructure," Brian Nelson, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.

"Through our whole-of-government approach and in close coordination with our British partners, Treasury will continue to leverage our tools to expose these networks and protect against these threats."

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that "the Justice Department will not tolerate efforts by the Chinese government to intimidate Americans who serve the public, silence the dissidents who are protected by American laws, or steal from American businesses."

He added that the "case serves as a reminder of the ends to which the Chinese government is willing to go to target and intimidate its critics."

The British government released a related announcement, imposing sanctions on two of the hackers for a breach that might have given them access to information about tens of millions of U.K. voters, although some of the information was already in the public domain.

The Foreign Office said Monday the hack of the election registers "has not had an impact on electoral processes, has not affected the rights or access to the democratic process of any individual, nor has it affected electoral registration."

British cybersecurity officials also said that APT31 hackers engaged in "reconnaissance activity" targeting British parliamentarians who criticized Beijing in 2021. One such parliamentarian is Iain Duncan Smith.

"Personally, I've had a wolf warrior that was impersonating me for some time using a fake email address, emailing all sorts of politicians around the world, saying that I'd recanted my views, also saying basically that I was a liar — all these sorts of things to various people," Smith told VOA.

"I only came to know about it because I know some of them, and they were sending this back to me to say, 'Why are you sending me emails recanting and basically calling yourself a liar?'" Smith said.

While no parliamentary accounts were successfully breached, prosecutors noted that hackers sent over 10,000 emails impersonating journalists and other figures. These emails contained malicious code that would give hackers access to the victims' location, IP addresses and devices.

APT31 had previously been accused of targeting presidential campaigns before the 2020 general election, as well as Finland parliament's information systems.

U.S. officials have consistently pursued legal action against Chinese state-linked hackers and expressed concerns about potential interference in American presidential politics. Despite a 2021 intelligence assessment finding no evidence of Chinese interference in the 2020 election, tensions persist over cybersecurity threats.

The recent indictment against the hackers does not change the assessment's conclusions and presents no allegations that the Chinese government was trying to influence the U.S. through the hacking.

It does highlight, however, the need for continued vigilance, particularly with the approaching 2024 election, according to Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the Justice Department's top national security official.

"Today's announcements underscore the need to remain vigilant to cybersecurity threats and the potential for cyber-enabled foreign malign influence efforts, especially as we approach the 2024 election cycle," Olsen said.

The Chinese Embassy in London called the charges "completely fabricated and malicious slanders," and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told countries that they should base their claims on evidence and not smear other countries without factual evidence.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.

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