China Is Relentlessly Hacking Its Neighbors

In May 2022, Joe Biden was in for a charm attack. The US president has invited the leaders of 10 countries in Southeast Asia to the White House for the first time for talks on the region of more than 600 million people. At the top of the agenda was China – the main trading partner of all countries, but also a potential threat to their stability. Biden has promised $150 million in additional support to states to help improve security, infrastructure, and the ongoing response to the pandemic.

However, in the weeks leading up to the meeting, according to a cybersecurity alert seen by WIRED, hackers acting on behalf of China had been stealing thousands of emails and sensitive details from Southeast Asian countries. The cyber espionage, which has not been previously reported, is the latest in a series of incidents in which hackers linked to China have quietly breached neighboring countries, looking to obtain political and economic information.

According to the cybersecurity alert, hackers linked to China were able to compromise mail servers operated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in February 2022 and steal a trove of data. ASEAN is an intergovernmental body made up of 10 countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. The document says this is the third time the organization has been hacked since 2019.

Hackers managed to steal “gigabytes” of emails sent by ASEAN countries, and data was stolen “on a daily basis,” according to the cybersecurity alert. It is believed that the attackers stole more than 10,000 emails, making up more than 30GB of data. The warning said the incident “affects all ASEAN members due to hacked correspondence”. The notification was sent to cybersecurity agencies, ministries of foreign affairs and other government organizations in all ten ASEAN member states.

Haji Amiruddin Abdul Wahab, CEO of Cybersecurity Malaysia, an agency under the country’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, says it received the alert in 2022, notified officials within the country, and generally condemns hacking. Other affected states declined comment or did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment. The ASEAN group itself did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

China’s embassy in the United States did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amplified voices, quiet rustling

“ASEAN is really important as the main regional grouping, not just in Southeast Asia but beyond,” says Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowe Institute. Patton explains that ASEAN helps coordinate Southeast Asian politics across a number of different areas. “Even outside of Southeast Asia, ASEAN plays an important role because it convenes or organizes other large regional summits,” Paton says. As a result, the data it holds may be useful for understanding political sentiment in the region.

ASEAN helps “amplify” the voices of its 10 member states, says Scott Marcel, the Oxenberg-Rohlin fellow at Stanford University and former US ambassador to Indonesia and Myanmar. The group holds both formal meetings and informal talks, Marcel says, and will discuss everything from economic integration and infrastructure plans to trade negotiations and geopolitics. “All of these would be things that I think Beijing would be interested in,” says Marcel.


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