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China ‘hacked US navy contractor, stole data on submarine warfare

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Chinese government hackers have twice compromised the computers of a Navy contractor, stealing massive amounts of highly sensitive data related to undersea warfare – including secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on US submarines by 2020, according to American officials, reported South China Morning Post (Hong Kong).

The breaches occurred in January and February, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. The hackers targeted a contractor who works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Centre, a military organisation headquartered in Newport, Rhode Island, that conducts research and development for submarines and underwater weaponry.

The officials did not identify the contractor.

Taken were 614 gigabytes of material relating to a closely held project known as “Sea Dragon”, as well as signals and sensor data, submarine radio room information relating to cryptographic systems, and the Navy submarine development unit’s electronic warfare library.

The Washington Post agreed to withhold certain details about the compromised missile project at the request of the Navy, which argued that their release could harm national security.

The data stolen was of a highly sensitive nature despite being housed on the contractor’s unclassified network. The officials said the material, when aggregated, would be considered classified, a fact that raises concerns about the Navy’s ability to oversee contractors tasked with developing cutting-edge weapons.

The breach is part of China’s long-running effort to blunt the US advantage in military technology and become the pre-eminent power in east Asia.

The news comes as the Trump administration is seeking to secure Beijing’s support in persuading North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, even as tensions persist between the United States and China over trade and defence matters.

The Navy is leading the investigation into the breach with the help of the FBI, officials said.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks said, “There are measures in place that require companies to notify the government when a ‘cyber incident’ has occurred that has actual or potential adverse effects on their networks that contain controlled unclassified information.”

Speaks said “it would be inappropriate to discuss further details at this time.”

Altogether, details on hundreds of mechanical and software systems were compromised – a significant breach in a critical area of warfare that China has identified as a priority, both for building its own capabilities and challenging those of the United States.

“The United States consistently has been able to use highly compartmented security systems to protect its most innovative and dynamic defence advancements, and any time one of those is penetrated you give up an enormous advantage in surprise,” said James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a retired admiral who served as supreme allied commander at Nato.

“So if it is true that this was a penetration of one of those very compartmented systems, that is a significant reversal for the United States,” he said. Stavridis had no independent knowledge of the breach.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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