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US Indictment Alleges Chinese Hack of Cambodian Ministry

Four Chinese nationals were indicted by U.S. Justice Department of cyber espionage, targeting intellectual property and confidential business information, including infectious disease research. (US Department of Justice)

A U.S. Justice Department indictment accusing four Chinese nationals of cyber espionage reveals how hackers allegedly stole data on Mekong River discussions with China from a Cambodian ministry in 2018.

The Justice Department on Monday accused three Chinese state security officials of coordinating an expansive hacking campaign targeting government entities, universities and corporations around the world.

In an indictment sealed since May, the Justice Department said countries impacted by the hacking campaign were the United States, Austria, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The hacking came at the time China and Cambodia were having a summit on the use of the Mekong River waters in January 2018.

“In or about January 2018, members of the conspiracy infiltrated the network of Cambodia Government Ministry A and stole data about discussions between the Governments of China and Cambodia over the use of the Mekong River,” read court documents, which does not divulge which ministry was hacked.

According to the indictment, members of the hacking team recruited “Cambodian linguistics” to translate the stolen data, which were stored in servers identified by the indictment.

Cambodia hosted the 2nd Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders' Meeting in January 2018, which was chaired by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The meeting was held under the theme “Our River of Peace and Sustainable Development.”

Koy Kuong, a spokesperson for the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, said he didn’t have any information about the alleged hack. “Personally, I have no information at all,” he said.

Meas Po, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, said he too didn’t have any information about the alleged hack and referred the question to other officials. So Visothy, secretary of state at the same ministry, did not want to comment.

U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier said the embassy doesn’t have any additional comments on the indictment. The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh didn’t respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Ngeth Moses, an independent cybersecurity consultant, questioned the Cambodian government’s ability to confirm if the hack happened at all or to prevent any future attacks.

“It is hard for us to confirm whether it is true or not,” he said.

“Does our country have enough human resources to protect the state data, to protect our security information from not being hacked by other foreign countries or enemies?” he said.