A total of 60,000 emails from the U.S. State Department got into Chinese hackers’ hands during a cyber campaign focused on Microsoft that was uncovered in July, according to Senate staff briefed on the matter on Sept. 27.
These emails belong to 10 State Department accounts, a staffer for Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) told The Epoch Times. The hackers had their focus on Indo-Pacific diplomatic efforts—nine of the victims work on East Asia and Pacific affairs, the other on affairs in Europe.
The hackers also accessed officials’ travel itineraries and captured a list of every State Department email address. Kelly Fletcher, the State Department's chief information officer, told briefing attendees that fewer than 10 Social Security numbers were also in hackers’ reach.
A total of 30 to 40 Senate staffers from both political sides were present at the briefing, according to the staffer.
The revelation gave a partial glimpse into the scope of the month-long Chinese cyber attack that started in May and has penetrated accounts from 25 entities globally, including those of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Kritenbrink.
The attack took place as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was readying his high-profile trip to China to mend bilateral ties, so it likely gave the Chinese regime clues about U.S. strategy.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller on Sept. 28 confirmed to reporters that “this was a hack of Microsoft systems that the State Department uncovered and notified Microsoft about.”
The State Department hasn't officially attributed the breach, but Microsoft has tracked it back to the Chinese state.
“We have no reason to doubt their attribution in the case,” Mr. Miller said.
The breach has brought attention to the U.S. government’s reliance on Microsoft as the sole vendor for cybersecurity services.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cyber Safety Review Board, a panel of government and industry experts, has begun an investigation into the potential systemic risk of cloud computing.
On Sept. 27, State Department officials said at the briefing that they are migrating to “hybrid environments” with multiple vendors.
Mr. Schmitt, who in late July led a letter to the State Department over the Chinese cyberattack, said he saw the briefing as “an important step forward in countering cyberattacks from foreign adversaries like China in the future” but that his investigation into the matter is “far from over.”
“We need to harden our defenses against these types of cyberattacks and intrusions in the future, and we need to take a hard look at the federal government’s reliance on a single vendor as a potential weak point,” he told The Epoch Times, adding that he will be “pushing for more answers to ensure China and other nefarious actors do not gain access to the federal government’s most sensitive information.”
He said the latest finding is “a reminder that we need to do more to help Taiwan strengthen its defenses and we need to bolster our alliances in the Pacific and Asia.”
“China is a serious cyber threat,” he told The Epoch Times. But if “the [Chinese Communist Party] thought by hacking my email that it would silence me, they’re sorely mistaken.”
State Department officials didn't respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.