China behind massive Australian National University hack, intelligence officials say

Intelligence officials believe China may have been behind a massive data breach which compromised the personal details of thousands of Australian National University students and staff.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that senior intelligence officials have pointed the finger at China as one of only a few countries capable of pulling off the hack, which compromised up to 19 years’ worth of personal data from students and staff.

The ANU revealed the breach on Tuesday, with vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt saying the university had detected an “unauthorised access to significant amounts” of data including the bank numbers, tax details, academic records and passport details of students and staff dating back almost two decades.

The Australian Signals Directorate said the hack appeared to be the work of a sophisticated actor, and now intelligence officials are reportedly pointing the finger at China.

The ANU, based in Canberra, has graduates throughout the public service, including in Australia’s intelligence and security agencies. Quoting senior intelligence officials on Thursday, the Herald reported fears the data will be used to recruit students or ANU alumni as informants.

The university is also home to the influential School of Strategic and Defence Studies and the Crawford School of Public Policy, which hold close links with government departments and agencies.

It followed similar attempts to breach the university’s computer systems in July last year. Those attacks were also attributed to Chinese hackers at the time.

Schmidt said the university had upgraded its systems to better protect data, however he admitted the breach was detected only a fortnight ago even though it began late last year.

“Following the incident reported last year, we undertook a range of upgrades to our systems to better protect our data. Had it not been for those upgrades, we would not have detected this incident,” Schmidt said.

The hack is one of the most significant breaches in Australia recently. In February there was an attack on the federal parliament’s computer system, in which a “sophisticated state actor” attempted to access data held by Australia’s three major political parties.

Following ANU’s disclosure of the breach the Australian Cyber Security Centre confirmed it was helping the university to secure the networks, protect users and investigate the full extent of the compromise.

“This compromise is a salient reminder that the cyber threat is real and that the methods used by malicious actors are constantly evolving,” a spokesman said.

“Unfortunately, a malicious actor with sufficient capability, time and resources will almost always be able to compromise an internet-connected computer network.”

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