Why Would China Hack US Federal Employees? A Phenomenal Amount Of Data Has Been Obtained By Whomever The Culprit Is
Over the last 24 hours, everyone's been talking about the alleged Chinese hacking of thousands of U.S. government employees' data, a breach into the Office of Personal Management's systems that one anonymous official called "deep," according to Reuters. It's a worrying story, combining international intrigue with all the familiar threats of our digital age — cybersecurity, lack of privacy, data theft, and so forth. But, assuming the U.S. government's claim that the hacks originated from China is true, this only gives way to a bigger question: why would China hack U.S. government employees?
This is far from the first time the U.S. has run up against hacks allegedly originating from foreign states — late last year, North Korea's implication in the huge Sony hack spurred a stern response from President Obama (as well as whipped up pseudo-patriotic publicity for an ultimately mediocre James Franco/Seth Rogen movie).
But the U.S./China relationship is a great deal less overtly adversarial than with North Korea, although that might be damning with faint praise. And regardless of whoever undertook this massive intrusion — according to The New York Times, over 4 million government employees have had their information compromised — the uncertainty is a chilling aspect. What's the motive in all this? What will the information be used for, if anything?
Here's what we know: according to The Washington Post, anonymous U.S. officials have accused the hack of being state-sponsored — in other words, they're alleging that the Chinese government undertook this action deliberately. And while it might be too early to responsibly speculate about what exact value this glut of information has, the "why" of this alleged hacking seems pretty clear: for surveillance states, of which China definitely qualifies, information is power.
It's ostensibly the same reason that China has been allegedly hacking major American corporations for years. As Business Insider detailed in late 2014, hacking attempts against major companies are pervasive. FBI director James Comey summed the situation up like this:
There are two kinds of big companies in the United States. There are those who've been hacked by the Chinese and those who don't know they've been hacked by the Chinese.
Suffice it to say, whether it's geared towards for corporate or governmental espionage, cyber-infiltration seems to be the way of things these days. As The New York Times details, some of the government employees who've been exposed possessed high-level security clearances, which is obviously alluring information for the purposes of a sometimes-adversarial foreign government.
This isn't true of all the data, however — the vast majority of people have no such clearances, which is part of why the motivations behind the hack remain opaque. Although, scooping up millions of people's information when you're only interested in a fraction of it could be an act of misdirection in itself.
This much is clear, however: whatever the precise intentions behind the hack, the hackers made off with a huge amount of personal info. According to an anonymous source that spoke to Reuters, the data runs all the way back to 1985. For the record, China denies these allegations in no uncertain terms. According to the AP, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei chastised the U.S. government on Friday, calling its accusations "irresponsible and unscientific."
We know that hacker attacks are conducted anonymously, across nations, and that it is hard to track the source. It's irresponsible and unscientific to make conjectural, trumped-up allegations without deep investigation.