China has been accused of stealing the personal data of 200,000 university students and staff in Australia to blackmail them into becoming spies.
Senior intelligence officials strongly suspect China of having orchestrated the attack, which targeted bank numbers, tax details and academic records going back 19 years, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Authorities have described the attack as “sophisticated”, indicating it was almost certainly the work of a government as opposed to a criminal or political group.
China is one of the few countries thought to be capable of pulling off such a large hack, and officials are concerned that it intends to use the information to groom a new generation of spies.
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The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, whose alumni include prime ministers, diplomats, and military leaders, revealed the attack on Tuesday.
Vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt said the university had detected “unauthorized access to significant amounts” of data.
He added that the breach had begun late last year but had only been detected a fortnight ago, meaning the hackers had access to the data for at least five months.
Cold War tactics
The breach comes after the Australian government’s elite spy agency last year helped the university improve its cyber defenses.
It’s thought Chinese intelligence services could have developed tactics used during the Cold War by the Soviet Union, who succeeded in recruiting future informants while they were still students.
The best-known case is that of the Cambridge Five, a group of five British diplomats and spies who were found to being working for the Soviet Union having been recruited at the University of Cambridge.
This attack is the latest in a series on Australian public bodies in recent years.
In February, MPs were told to reset their passwords amid fears of an attack on the parliamentary computing network, while 2015 and 2016 saw high-profile attacks on the government’s weather and statistics agencies.