Chinese cyberattack hits Canada's National Research Council

A "highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor" recently managed to hack into the computer systems at Canada’s National Research Council, confirms the country's chief information officer, Corinne Charette.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird raises issue during visit to Beijing

Canada's National Research Council hacked

9 years ago
Duration 3:27
Communications Security Establishment Canada says hackers backed by the Chinese government recently breached NRC computer systems

A "highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor" recently managed to hack into the computer systems at Canada's National Research Council, according to Canada's chief information officer, Corinne Charette.

The attack was discovered by Communications Security Establishment Canada.

In a statement released Tuesday, Charette, confirmed that while the NRC's computers operate outside those of the government of Canada as a whole, the council's IT system has been "isolated" to ensure no other departments are compromised.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Beijing as news of the cyberattack became public.

Baird was scheduled to hold a press conference on his visit, but that briefing was abruptly cancelled. No reason was immediately given, although in an email from Baird's office in response to CBC questions, spokesman Rick Roth said Canada did not cancel any events as they were guests.

The office also said Baird raised this issue with his Chinese counterpart and the two had a "full and frank exchange of views."

"The government takes this issue very seriously and we are addressing it at the highest levels in both Beijing and Ottawa," the statement continued.

For its part, the NRC says in a statement released Tuesday morning that it is now attempting to rebuild its computer infrastructure and this could take as much a year.

The NRC works with private businesses to advance and develop technological innovations through science and research.

Not the 1st cyberattack from China

The NRC says it has already been in contact with many of its "clients and stakeholders," but it could take as long as a year to secure the system.

This is not the first time the Canadian government has fallen victim to a cyberattack that seems to have originated in China — but it is the first time the Canadian government has unequivocally blamed China for the attack.

"They are right on the bull's-eye — probably," says security expert and former member of CSIS Michel Juneau-Katsuya.

"China is, by far, at the top of the ranks worldwide when it comes to cyber-espionage," Juneau-Katsuya said in an interview with CBC News. "They are devoting hundreds-of-millions of dollars, thousands of people just specializing in hacking on their behalf."

In remarks sent to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa said China does "not accept the groundless allegation of [the] Chinese government's involvement in any cyber intrusion or attack."

"The Chinese government has always firmly opposed … and combated cyberattacks in accordance with the law," Yang Yundong wrote, adding that China itself faced attacks from thousands of "foreign servers" in 2013.

"It is the common challenge faced by the international community to deal with cyberattacks and safeguard cyber security," Yang said. "Nowadays, China-Canada relations have maintained a good momentum. We are ready to work together with the Canadian side to create a peaceful, secure, open and co-operative cyberspace."

In January 2011, the federal government was forced to take the Finance Department and Treasury Board — the federal government's two main economic nerve centres — off the internet after foreign hackers gained access to highly classified federal information.

The attack also targeted Defence Research and Development Canada, a civilian agency of the Department of National Defence that assists in the scientific and technological needs of the Canadian Forces.

The attacks were traced back to servers in China.

With files from James Fitz-Morris and Marc Godbout