China Allegedly Behind Major Security Breach At Big-Time US Law Firms

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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Major security breaches of several major U.S. law firms may have actually been perpetrated by state-sponsored Chinese hackers, Fortune reports.

Hackers reportedly launched cyberattacks against some of the country’s most prestigious law firms last summer. Targeted firms include: Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Cleary Gottlieb, Mayer Brown, Latham & Watkins, Covington & Burling, and Davis Polk & Wardell.

Some of the targeted firms represent Wall Street banks and Fortune 500 companies and have access to sensitive corporate information.

Not all of the attacks were successful, but the hackers were still able to steal internal data.

Cravath said that the incident involved a “limited breach” of the firm’s systems and that it was “not aware that any of the information that may have been accessed has been used improperly,” the Wall Street Journal reported in late March, when news of the breaches first broke.

At the time of the WSJ’s report, the hackers had not yet been identified.

The pervasive attack was allegedly carried out by cyber criminals affiliated with the Chinese government, according to evidence obtained by Fortune. China’s involvement was reportedly confirmed by multiple sources in law enforcement and the law firms themselves.

The hackers penetrated the email accounts of a number of partners and then relayed messages to an outside server.

For one firm, the hackers repeatedly hit the system over a 94-day period starting in March, 2015. In that instance, seven gigabytes of data, the potential equivalent of tens or even hundreds of thousands of emails, were stolen.

The Wall Street Journal initially reported that the hacks may have been for insider trading purposes. Some of the firms targeted in the attacks also have robust patent/trademark practices that deal with intellectual property protection. There is also an industrial espionage angle that the cyber criminals may have been looking to exploit through the attacks.

The motive behind the attacks is still unclear.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is conducting an investigation.

While the firms that were breached had firewalls and other safeguards in place to protect their operations, they failed to detect the email-based “spear-phishing” attacks.

Chinese cyberattacks against the U.S. emerged as one of the most serious bilateral issues affecting U.S.-China relations in 2015. China is the leading suspect in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach early in 2015 that compromised sensitive personal data for an estimated 21.5 million people.

Late last year, Obama called China’s repeated cyberattacks an “act of aggression” and warned the Chinese to bring an end to their illicit operations in cyberspace.

Cyber-crime was an important point of discussion during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit last year.

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