China Is Still Busy Hacking Into Carrier Networks to Spy on Users, US Warns

China continues to hack into major telecommunication companies in an effort to spy on users, according to a new warning from the US government. 

On Tuesday, the FBI, NSA, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a joint alert(Opens in a new window) warning the public about the alleged hacking activities. According to the alert, Chinese state-sponsored hackers have been busy since at least 2020 establishing a “broad network” of compromised network infrastructure to snoop on critical users. 

The same network has also given Chinese hackers a foothold into telecom companies, allowing them to steal login credentials for administrative systems and reroute network traffic to their own computers. “These actors use the network to exploit a wide variety of targets worldwide, including public and private sector organizations,” the federal agencies added. 

It’s not the first time the cybersecurity industry has warned about the threat of China hacking into telecommunication networks. In 2019, Chinese cyberspies were spotted allegedly hacking into mobile carriers to spy on SMS messages from users and uncover call log and location data. The targets included people who work in politics and military affairs.  

Tuesday’s joint alert didn’t name any victims. But the federal agencies say the Chinese hackers have been breaking into the telecommunication companies by quickly exploiting publicly known vulnerabilities in network devices that companies have been slow to patch.

“This technique has allowed the actors to gain access into victim accounts using publicly available exploit code against virtual private network (VPN) services or public facing applications —without using their own distinctive or identifying malware,” the federal agencies added. 

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The alert also lists 16 of the publicly known vulnerabilities Chinese hackers have been exploiting to infiltrate the telecommunication networks. The flaws—many of which were discovered in 2019—affected systems from Cisco, Netgear, D-Link, Fortinet, and Pulse, among others. 

The US federal agencies issued the alert in the hopes that private industry will bolster their cyber defenses and rapidly patch any vulnerabilities in their IT systems. The alert adds that the Chinese hackers have been using both their own custom software and open-source hacking tools to identify vulnerable networks and break into them.

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