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Chinese firm hacked foreign govts, activists: analysts

Beijing has dismissed the claims as 'groundless' and pointed to the United States' own history of cyber espionage
Representative image.

Representative image. (Photo: Canva)

Published: February 22, 2024 06:44 AM GMT
Updated: February 22, 2024 06:48 AM GMT

A Chinese tech security firm was able to breach foreign governments, infiltrate social media accounts, and hack personal computers, a massive data leak analyzed by experts this week has revealed.

The trove of documents from I-Soon, a private contractor that competed for Chinese government contracts, shows that its hackers compromised more than a dozen governments, according to cybersecurity firms SentinelLabs and Malwarebytes.

I-Soon also breached "democracy organizations" in China's semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, universities and the NATO military alliance, SentinelLabs researchers wrote Wednesday.

The leaked data, the contents of which AFP was unable to immediately identify, was posted last week on the online software repository GitHub by an unknown individual.

"The leak provides some of the most concrete details seen publicly to date, revealing the maturing nature of China's cyber espionage ecosystem," SentinelLabs analysts said.

I-Soon was able to breach government offices in India, Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea, among others, Malwarebytes said in a separate post on Wednesday.

I-Soon's website was not available Thursday morning, though an internet archive snapshot of the site from Tuesday says it is based in Shanghai, with subsidiaries and offices in Beijing, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

It contains files showing chatlogs, presentations and lists of targets, analysts said.

Services offered to potential clients included breaking into an individual's account on social media platform X -- monitoring their activity, reading their private messages, and sending posts.

It also laid out how the firm's hackers could access and take over a person's computer remotely, allowing them to execute commands and monitor what they type.

Other services included ways to breach Apple's iPhone and other smartphone operating systems, as well as custom hardware -- including a power bank that can extract data from a device and send it to the hackers.

The leak also showed I-Soon bidding for contracts in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, where Beijing stands accused of detaining hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim people as part of a campaign against alleged extremism. The United States has called it a genocide.

"The company listed other terrorism-related targets the company had hacked previously as evidence of their ability to perform these tasks, including targeting counterterrorism centers in Pakistan and Afghanistan," SentinelLabs analysts said.

The leaked data also revealed the fees that hackers could earn, they said -- including $55,000 from breaking into a government ministry in Vietnam.

The FBI has said that China has the biggest hacking program of any country.

Beijing has dismissed the claims as "groundless" and pointed to the United States's own history of cyber espionage.

Pieter Arntz, a researcher at Malwarebytes, said the leak will likely "rattle some cages at the infiltrated entities".

"As such, it could possibly cause a shift in international diplomacy and expose the holes in the national security of several countries."

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