Chinese hackers hit several US contractors

A report issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee reveals alleged Chinese hackers conducted dozens of cyber attacks on US defense contractors.

A study conducted by the Senate Armed Services Committee discovered that hackers gained access to the systems run by US defense contractors work for the US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM).

The Senate study released on Wednesday stated it was based on interviews with 11 contractors, but it didn’t reveal the names of the companies involved. The incursions of the hackers mentioned by the document are at least 50 in a one-year period ending May 30, 2013.

“Of those 50, at least 20 were successful intrusions into contractor networks attributed to an ‘advanced persistent threat’ (APT), a term used to distinguish sophisticated cyber threats that are frequently associated with foreign governments,” states the report.

The report reveals that nearly 40 percent of the attacks were successful intrusions, the committee chairman Senator Carl Levin speculated that all these offensives are linked to the activity of Chinese APTs. The circumstance is alarming for different reasons, first of all, due to the nature of the information potentially breached and for the lack of coordination between US defense contractors and US agencies like the FBI.

“The security of our military operations is what is at stake,” Levin told reporters commenting the de-classified version of the report.

The intelligence agencies, according to the report, have left TRANSCOM in the dark about the intrusions, of the 20 data breaches suffered by TRANSCOM, the command has been made aware of just two of the incursion.

“Information about these threats isn’t getting where it needs to go,” Levin said.

The investigators analyzed the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a program managed by the US Government through which commercial companies help TRANSCOM move troops and equipment around the world. The experts discovered that nearly 90 percent of US military personnel is transported on private airlines, this means that a potential data breach suffered by the companies working for TRANSCOM could have a serious impact on the operations of the Command.


Senator James Inhofe, the committee’s top Republican, warned that the incursions my disrupt Command mission readiness by compromising the contractors, particularly during national emergencies.

The committee is concerned by the possible persistence of threat actors inside contractors systems, a circumstance that could allow hackers to easily access over the time to sensitive information regarding US Government activities.

According the study, in the specific cases the data breached occurred between 2008 and 2010,  the “Chinese military intrusion” into a TRANSCOM contractor compromised emails, sensitive documents, computer code and passwords. Another major intrusion occurred in in 2012, when hackers obtained information form several systems on board a commercial ship contracted by TRANSCOM.

The report closes with indications for the 2015 defense spending bill which urge further effort to secure Government networks and to improve information sharing regarding cyber attacks on defense contractors.

Pierluigi Paganini

September 19, 2014

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