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Chinese hackers target Israel in cyberattack: Report

Cybersecurity firm believes hack obtained usernames, passwords, documents and emails related to Chinese projects in Israel
A member of the hacking group Red Hacker Alliance in Dongguan, China, using a website that monitors global cyberattacks on 4 August 2020 (AFP)

A cybersecurity company has said that China "most likely" staged large-scale cyberattacks on Israeli government departments and tech companies based in the country between 2019-20, according to a report cited by Haaretz.

FireEye, a multi-billion dollar cybersecurity firm based in California, confirmed to the Israeli paper that hackers had targeted Israel as part of a broader hacking campaign that also targeted Iran, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, and others. 

The company concluded that the hacking tools used to infiltrate Israel's government bodies - including the defence ministry - indicated that China was behind the attack. 

Among the data taken by the Chinese hack were emails, usernames, and passwords, according to FireEye. The attackers also looked through documents and email servers.

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Sanaz Yashar, who led FireEye's investigation into Israeli targets, said the attacks could be linked to Israeli infrastructure projects that China is involved in.

"There are a lot of Israeli companies that are involved in the very fields at the core of Chinese interests, as reflected in their five-year plans," Yashar told Haaretz. 

"Their goal isn't necessarily always to steal intellectual property; it's possible that they're actually looking for business information."

"In the Chinese view, it's legitimate to attack a company while negotiating with it, so they will know how to price the deal properly."

She added: "When the Chinese do business, they don't enter the contract with their eyes shut. They examine the other offers, the board of directors' emails, correspondence among people, what the intrigues are and who the key people are."

FireEye investigated the Chinese hack with the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and Israeli government cybersecurity experts. 

The firm believes the attack is the first time Chinese hackers have targeted Israel in this manner. 

US pressure

Washington has previously expressed reservations and concerns that Chinese investments and infrastructure developments in Israel could undermine Israel's security relationship with the US. 

In June 2019, the Israeli city of Haifa defied US pressure and signed a 25-year contract with Chinese company Shanghai International Port Group to build and operate a large shipping seaport on the Mediterranean. Set to begin operations in 2021, Israel recouped $290m for the privatisation of the port.

US authorities have expressed concerns that the Chinese company would be operating close to where US Navy ships dock and could potentially collect intelligence, but the contract moved forward anyway.

Last year, Israel denied a US maritime team access to inspect the Port of Haifa. But in May, Israel bowed to US pressure and turned down a Hong Kong firm's $1.5bn investment bid to develop a water desalination plant.

Israel, which has carried out cyber attacks on other countries, has in the past been targeted by Iranian and Palestinian hackers.

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