Chinese Hackers Target US Infrastructure Including Maritime Networks

Chinese cyber attack
US security agencies and Microsoft warned the new Chinese attack focuses on infrastructure including the maritime sector

Published May 25, 2023 12:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

The United States joined by its counterparts in the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, warned on Wednesday of “stealthy and targeted malicious activity,” focused on a broad range of computer networks including the maritime and transportation industries coming from a state-sponsored actor based in China. Microsoft said that it had detected the activity saying they believe it could disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and the Asia region in the future.

The New York Times reports that the U.S. first became aware of the activity in February and has been working to analyze the extent of the incursion and damage done to systems. They are reporting that the attack focused on assets in Guam and the United States, highlighting the strategic role Guam plays for the U.S. military in its efforts in Asia, including the defense of Taiwan.

The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), along with its partners in law enforcement and security, as well as Microsoft detailed the nature of the attack and steps that should be taken. They reported that it appears to be impacting organizations ranging from the communications, manufacturing, utility, transport, construction, maritime, government, information technology, and education sectors. Microsoft said it has notified targeted or compromised customers, but said the nature of the attack is both difficult to detect and mitigate because it infected valid accounts and uses a technique known as “living off the land.” Affected accounts will need to be closed or altered.

“For years, China has conducted aggressive cyber operations to steal intellectual property and sensitive data from organizations around the globe,” said Jen Easterly, CISA Director. “Today’s advisory highlights China’s continued use of sophisticated means to target our nation’s critical infrastructure, and it gives network defenders important insights into how to detect and mitigate this malicious activity.”

The attack is being carried out by a company known as Volt Typhoon, which Microsoft reports has been active since mid-2021. Microsoft explained that the attack works by trying to blend into normal network activity by routing traffic through compromised small office and home office network equipment. It seeks to collect data, archive the data, and maintain persistence, giving Microsoft “moderate confidence” that it is there to disrupt systems in the future. 

News of this cybersecurity incident comes as the number of attacks from various sources increases on the maritime sector. The U.S. Coast Guard issued a separate alert yesterday warning of ongoing email phishing and malware intrusion attempts that targeted commercial vessels. It reported that cyber adversaries are attempting to gain sensitive information including the content of an official Notice of Arrival (NOA) using email addresses that pose as an official Port State Control authority. The Coast Guard has also received reports of malicious software designed to disrupt shipboard computer systems.

Various political factions in recent weeks have also raised concerns over the Chinese-manufactured cargo cranes used in most ports around the world. A legislative proposal has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for a ban on Chinese-manufactured cranes and Chinese software despite a response from the American Association of Port Authorities highlighting that despite the “sensationalized claims” there is no evidence of the cranes being used to harm or track port operations. 

The U.S. is not alone in being targeted. In January 2023, DNV’s ShipManager Service was attacked forcing the company to take the system offline for weeks. More than 7,000 vessels worldwide DNV reported were o the system with their access to the network suspended. It took till mid-March before the ships were brought back online with DNV reporting at the time that work to resume the full scope of service was still ongoing.