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US Claims China Hacked Commerce Secretary’s Laptop During a Beijing Trip

Posted by Author on May 31, 2008

New Zealand Herald, Saturday May 31, 2008-

United States authorities are investigating whether Chinese officials secretly copied the contents of a sensitive Government laptop computer during a visit to China by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and used the information to try to hack into Commerce computers.

Surreptitious copying is believed to have occurred when a laptop was left unattended during Gutierrez’s trip to Beijing for trade talks in December, say people familiar with the incident.

These people spoke on condition of anonymity because the incident remains under investigation.

“Because there is an investigation going on, I would rather not comment on that,” Gutierrez said. “To the extent that there is an investigation going on, those are the things being looked at, those are the questions being asked. I don’t think I should provide any speculative answers.”

A Commerce Department spokesman, Rich Mills, said he could not confirm or deny such an incident in China. Asked if the department has issued new rules for carrying computers overseas, he said: “The department is continuing to improve our security posture, and that includes providing updates, guidances and best practices to staff.”

It was not clear what information on the laptop might have been compromised, but it would be highly unorthodox for any US Government official to carry classified data on a laptop overseas to China, especially one left unattended even briefly. Modern copying equipment can duplicate a laptop’s storage drive in just minutes.

The report of the incident is the latest in a series of cyber-security problems blamed on China and comes at a sensitive time, with trade issues looming between the countries and special attention on China because of this year’s Olympic Games.

Gutierrez returned just weeks ago from another trip to Beijing, where he noted he had “travelled here more than to any other foreign city during my tenure as commerce secretary.”

In the period after he returned from China in December, the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team – known as US-CERT and comprising some of the Government’s leading computer forensic experts – rushed to the Commerce Department at least three times to respond to serious attempts at data break-ins, officials said.

“There’s nothing to substantiate an actual compromise at this time,” said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

He said US-CERT workers had visited Commerce eight times since December, but none of those visits related to laptops or the secretary’s trip to China. He said US-CERT worked routinely with all US agencies.

FBI officials refused comment.

It was not clear whether leaving the laptop unattended violated US Government rules. Some agencies, such as Homeland Security, routinely give officials sanitised laptops to carry on trips overseas instead of their everyday laptops, which might contain sensitive information.

A senior US intelligence official, Joel F. Brenner, recounted a separate story of an American financial executive who travelled to Beijing on business and said he had detected attempts to remotely implant monitoring software on his handheld “personal digital assistant” device that could have infected the executive’s corporate network when he returned home.

The executive “counted five beacons popped into his PDA between the time he got off his plane in Beijing and the time he got to his hotel room,” Brenner said in December.

He recommended throwaway cellphones for any business people travelling to China.

“The more serious danger is that your device will be corrupted with malicious software that takes only a second or two to download – and you will not know it – and that can be transferred to your home server when you collect your email,” he said.

The Pentagon, State Department and Commerce Department all have been victimised by widespread computer intrusions blamed on China since July 2006.

– Original report from New Zealand Herald: US claims Chinese raided Govt laptop

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