Numerous Chinese hacking campaigns aimed at member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have been unveiled in recent months. Chinese cybercriminals possess an extensive cyber arsenal that grows more sophisticated each day. Detecting malware within the victim’s system proves challenging, and the volume of attacks is experiencing a dramatic increase. In recent weeks, NATO has encountered multiple cyber-attacks launched by pro-Chinese hackers, encompassing cyber espionage, destructive assaults, and the exploitation of novel forms of malicious code. Consequently, Beijing is evolving into an increasingly critical security threat for NATO nations.
The United States, the foremost member of the alliance, has long been China’s primary rival and faces the most substantial number of attacks. The US views Beijing as a major cyber espionage threat primarily due to its unparalleled theft of intellectual property from US companies. This has recently been coupled with concerns about the potential for widespread, destructive attacks. In fact, President Joe Biden of the United States has stated that Chinese malware has infiltrated the country’s communication and energy networks, describing it as a “ticking time bomb.” This malware could prove pivotal in disrupting effective military communications in the event of an armed conflict outbreak in Taiwan. The US encountered a similar predicament a few weeks ago when the Pacific island of Guam fell victim to an attack. Chinese hackers have also successfully breached the email accounts of several prominent US diplomats, including US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and Daniel Kritenbrink, an advisor to the Secretary of State for East Asia.
European ministries, embassies, and other state institutions are equally attractive targets for cybercriminals aligned with Beijing. The most recent revelation of hacking activities occurred in early July, involving the infection of victims with a Trojan—a malicious code masquerading as a useful tool, while covertly executing malicious actions in the background. Foreign ministries and embassies across Europe bore the brunt of this attack. Countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, France, Ukraine, Sweden, and others were counted among the victims. Additionally, a report issued by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee was released a few weeks ago. This report unveiled China’s extensive espionage efforts and interventionist tactics within the United Kingdom, identifying Beijing as a substantial threat to the nation’s national security and sovereignty.
All of this unfolds within the context of well-known concerns regarding Beijing’s sweeping data collection efforts encompassing residents of NATO countries—through platforms like TikTok or companies like Huawei, which are legally obligated to share all user-collected data with the Chinese government. While data is not supposed to be transmitted to China, it remains unclear whether this prohibition is strictly adhered to. Concurrently, the extent of data collection far surpasses what could be deemed reasonable and necessary. As data continues to grow in value, various initiatives emerge advocating for individuals’ rights to their personal information. Beijing is acutely aware of the data’s significance, which underscores the threat these activities pose to the Western world.
Be it the excessive acquisition of data, cyber espionage, or destructive cyber operations, all these endeavours significantly bolster China’s rapidly advancing cyber capabilities. These campaigns are progressively becoming more intricate, thereby making it substantially more challenging for affected organisations to both identify malware and respond adequately. Through espionage alone, Beijing annually pilfers billions of dollars worth of intellectual property from its adversaries, funnelling these gains into domestic enterprises that, in turn, contribute to the nation’s economic growth. The rivalry between NATO member states and Beijing is projected to intensify in the future, paralleling the escalation of cyber warfare. Consequently, NATO should brace for an upsurge in Beijing’s cyber operations within its digital domain in the years ahead.
Photo credit: flickr.com/NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
This brief is supported by
NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division