Belgium accuses Chinese government of cyber-espionage

May 07, 2008 Sophos Press Release

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Chinese hackers are reported to have attacked Belgian government computer networks.

Sophos, a world leader in IT security and control, has reminded businesses of the importance of properly securing their computer systems following claims by Belgian ministers that Chinese hackers are targeting their country's computer systems.

According to media reports, Justice Minister Jo Vandeurzen has claimed that hacking attacks against the Belgian Federal Government have originated in China, and are likely to have been at the bequest of the Beijing government.

Separately, Belgian minister of foreign affairs Karel De Gucht has told parliament that his ministry was the subject of cyberespionage by Chinese agents several weeks ago.

Experts at SophosLabs™ warn that all businesses and organisations, not just governments, need to defend themselves from the threat of cybercrime.

"There simply isn't enough evidence to say whether these attacks were sponsored by the Chinese government or not, but these reports do underline the importance of everyone making computer security a priority," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos. "Cyberhackers can cover their tracks, leapfrogging from computer to computer around the world, making it very hard to determine precisely who is behind an attack. Governments need to think carefully before accusing another of spying via the internet unless they have strong proof. There is no doubt, however, of the importance of securing critical computers inside government from hackers whether motivated by politics, espionage or money."

There has been speculation that China may be interested in spying on Belgium because NATO and the European Union have headquarters in the country. It has also been suggested that China may be interested in exploring Belgium's historical connections with Central Africa.

Sophos experts report that Belgium is not the only country said to have been the alleged focus of attention by Chinese hackers.

In September 2007, the Chinese military were blamed for a cyberattack which targeted a Pentagon computer system serving the office of US defense secretary Robert Gates. Unnamed sources are said to have told the Financial Times that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) were accused of perpetrating the attempted hack. Media reports in The Guardian claimed that the British and German governments have also been subject to similar probes by hackers working for the PLA.

Three years ago, Sophos reported how it had helped the National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre (NISCC) analyze Trojan horses which had targeted government departments and British businesses. Much of the malware was thought to have originated from China.

"Spying has been going on between countries for thousands of years, and it would be naive to think that countries would not use computers and the internet to help them," continued Cluley. "It is unusual, however, for a nation to accuse another of engaging in this activity - especially when it can be extraordinarily difficult to prove an attack is being sponsored by a government or is a lone hacker acting independently."

Sophos does believe China to have an important part to play in the global fight against cybercrime. Research reveals that country presently accounts for 30.1% of the world's malware-infected webpages, second only to the USA.

Experts note that it is not just China which has been accused of using the internet to spy on other nations. Late last month it was alleged that the BND - Germany's foreign intelligence service - had used spyware to monitor the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in Afghanistan.

Sophos recommends companies protect themselves with a consolidated solution which can control network access and defend against the threats of spam, hackers, spyware and viruses.