China denies role in reported government of Canada hack

Attacks hit Canada's Finance Department and Treasury Board

The Chinese government is denying any involvement in a reported cyberattack on the Canadian government, which was ultimately traced to a Chinese server.

The Chinese government is firmly opposed to hacking and other criminal acts, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a press conference Thursday. China is also a victim of computer hacking, he said. "The allegation that China supports hacking is groundless," he said.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported Wednesday that authorities were forced to shut down Internet access to thousands of workers in the Canadian government's Finance Department and Treasury Board, after attackers

"posing as the federal executives, sent e-mails to departmental technical staffers, conning them into providing key passwords unlocking access to government networks," the CBC said.

The purpose of the attack was apparently to steal documents that contained classified government information.

Victims were also tricked into opening maliciously encoded documents, using a well-known technique called spear-phishing. With spear-phishing, the attacker does some research ahead of time and then picks a small number of victims, sending them a believable looking document -- a memo about an upcoming event, sent from a company executive, for example -- in the hopes that the victim will open this malicious attachment and their computer would be hacked.

The hacked computer is then used as a jumping-off point for computer-based espionage, as the hackers prowl through the victim's network in search of data.

This technique has been used successfully against U.S. government agencies and contractors for years now, according to security experts. Many believe these spear-phishing attacks to be part of a concerted espionage effort by the Chinese government, but this is nearly impossible to prove. China is often used as a path for all types of cyberattacks and it is possible that the attacker in this latest incident simply routed traffic through Chinese servers.

The Canadian government learned it had been compromised in January, the CBC reported. The office of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper could not immediately be reached for comment.

Robert McMillan covers computer security and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Robert on Twitter at @bobmcmillan. Robert's e-mail address is robert_mcmillan@idg.com

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