SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian intelligence has determined that China was responsible for a cyber attack on the national parliament and the three major political parties before the May general election, five people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
PHOTO FILE: A man is holding a laptop while the cyber code is projected on him in this photo taken on 13 May 2017. REUTERS / Kacper Pempel / Illustration / Photo file
The Australian computer intelligence agency – the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) – concluded in March that the Chinese State Security Ministry was responsible for the attack, the five people told the news told Reuters direct results of the survey.
The five sources refused to be identified because of the delicacy of the problem. Reuters did not review the classified report.
The report, which also included contributions from the Department of Foreign Affairs, recommended keeping the results secret in order to avoid interrupting trade relations with Beijing, two people said. The Australian government has not revealed who believes there was the attack or other details of the report.
In response to the questions posed by Reuters, the office of Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to comment on the attack, the results of the report or whether Australia had privately raised hacking with China . Even the ASD declined to comment.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied involvement in any kind of hacking attack and claimed that the Internet was full of theories that were difficult to trace.
"When investigating and determining the nature of online incidents, there must be complete proof of the facts, otherwise it is just a matter of creating rumors and dirtying others, labeling people indiscriminately. We would like to underline that China is also the victim of attacks to the Internet ", the Ministry said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"China hopes that Australia can meet China halfway and do more to foster mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries."
China is Australia's main trading partner, dominating the purchase of iron ore, coal and Australian agricultural products, buying over a third of the country's total exports and sending over a million tourists and students every year.
The Australian authorities considered that there was a "very real prospect of damaging the economy" if it were to publicly accuse China of the attack, one of the people said.
ACCESS WITHOUT PROBLEMS
Australia in February revealed that hackers had broken the Australian national parliament network. At the time Morrison said that the attack was "sophisticated" and probably carried out by a foreign government. He has not appointed any government suspected of involvement.
When the hack was discovered, Australian parliamentarians and their staff were told by the president of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate to urgently change their passwords, according to a parliamentary declaration of the time.
The ASD investigation quickly established that hackers had also had access to the Liberal Party's networks in power, its coalition partner, country citizens, and the opposition Labor Party, have said two sources.
The Labor party has not responded to a request for comment. A person close to the party said that he was informed of the results, without giving details.
The times of the attack, three months before the elections in Australia, and following the cyber attack on the US Democratic Party before the 2016 US elections, had raised concerns about electoral interference, but there was no an indication that the information gathered by hackers was used in any way, said one of the sources.
Morrison and his national-liberal coalition challenged the polls to briefly win the May elections, a result that Morrison described as a "miracle".
The attack on political parties allowed the authors to access political documents on topics such as fiscal and foreign policy and private e-mail correspondence between legislators, their staff and other citizens, two sources said.
Independent members of parliament and other political parties have not been affected, one of these sources said.
Australian investigators have discovered that the attacker used code and techniques known to have been used in the past by China, according to the two sources.
The Australian intelligence also established that the country's political parties were a target of Beijing's espionage, they added, without specifying other incidents.
People refused to specify how the attackers violated network security and stated that it was unclear when the attack started or how long hackers had access to the networks.
The attackers used sophisticated techniques to try to hide their access and their identity, one of the people said, without giving details.
The results were also shared with at least two allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, who claimed that four people are familiar with the investigations.
The UK has sent a small team of computer experts to Canberra to help investigate the attack, three of these people said.
The United States and the United Kingdom have both refused to comment.
In recent years Australia has intensified efforts to cope with the growing Chinese influence in Australia, the policies that have seen trade with China suffer.
For example, in 2017, Canberra banned foreign political donations and required lobbyists to register any connection with foreign governments. A year later, ASD led Australia's risk assessment of the new 5G technology, which prompted Canberra to effectively ban Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from its nascent 5G network.
While some US officials and diplomats have welcomed such steps from Australia and praise the strong intelligence reports of the countries, others have been frustrated by Australia's reluctance to publicly confront China, according to two US diplomatic sources.
During a visit to Sydney last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed vaguely veiled criticism of the Australian approach after Foreign Minister Marise Payne stated that Canberra would make decisions against China based on "our national interest ".
Pompeo said that countries cannot separate economic and trade issues from national security.
"You can sell your soul for a bunch of soybeans, or you can protect your people," he told reporters at a joint appearance with Payne in Sydney.
Morrison's office declined to comment on whether the United States had expressed frustration in Australia for not publicly challenging China on the attack. The US State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Reporting by Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Additional reports by Jack Stubbs and Guy Faulconbridge in LONDON, Christopher Bing in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Lincoln Feast and John Mair.
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