National Security & Defense

Blown Cover: Russia and China Exposing U.S. Spies through Cyberattacks

(Weerapat Kiatdumrong/Dreamstime)

Russian and Chinese intelligence officials are using data obtained through recent cyberhacks to identify undercover American spies.

“At least one clandestine network of American engineers and scientists who provide technical assistance to U.S. undercover operatives and agents overseas has been compromised as a result,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

The foreign agencies are cross-referencing “security clearance applications” with other hacked databases not only to find U.S. personnel, but, potentially, to expose them to blackmail. The revelation underscores the danger to U.S. personnel whose data was compromised in the recent Office of Personnel Management hacks. And it helps explain why President Obama’s team is developing a package of sanctions against China for other cyberattacks.

The Ashley Madison hack, which exposed 15,000 subscriptions linked to government accounts in the adultery website’s databases, could be especially useful to the foreign spy agencies. “A foreign spy agency now has the ability to cross-check who has a security clearance, via the OPM breach, with who was cheating on their wife via the Ashley Madison breach, and thus identify someone to target for blackmail,” said cybersecurity expert Peter W. Singer.

#share#American officials, in private, blame China for the OPM hacks. The breaches exposed 22 million people’s personal data, including applications for top-secret clearances that contain reams of private information. But whereas the FBI publicly blamed North Korea for a series of hacks that took place last year, and the U.S. government retaliated with cyberattacks of its own, Obama has not accused China of orchestrating the OPM hacks.

Still, the president is considering levying sanctions against Chinese companies that benefit from other acts of cyber espionage, which would be an indirect response to the breaches. “The data heists, which took place last year but were discovered this year, were judged as having been carried out for traditional intelligence purposes — not to benefit Chinese industry,” according to the Washington Post. “Nonetheless, the severity of the OPM incidents helped convince wavering officials that firm action in the economic spying realm was warranted.”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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