According to iDefense (a cybersecurity intelligence unit of Accenture Security) research obtained by The Wall Street Journal Tuesday, the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among at least 27 universities in the US, Canada and Southeast Asia that have been targeted by Chinese hackers.
The universities are believed to have been targeted as early as April 2017. iDefense is expected to publish its full findings in a report next week.
The cybersecurity unit also found that the majority of targeted universities have research hubs that focus on undersea technology or employ staff members with extensive maritime experience in certain fields.
In addition, most of the targeted universities were found to be connected to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, an organization "dedicated to advancing knowledge of the ocean and its connection with the Earth system," according to its website. The institution is well known for discovering the location of the British passenger liner Titanic in 1985, more than 70 years after it sank.
According to iDefense, it was able to identify the targeted universities by noticing that their networks were pinging servers in China believed to be controlled by a Chinese hacking group known by three different names: TEMP.Periscope, Leviathan and Mudcarp. The cyberattacks are also believed to have been conducted using phishing emails, fraudulent emails designed to look like messages from known contacts that contain links to malicious software. The hackers allegedly impersonated other universities' departments requesting research.
"Universities are pretty willing to share information in pursuit of academic information," Howard Marshall, who leads iDefense threat intelligence operations, told The Wall Street Journal. "But as a lot of our adversaries have discovered, that is a sweet spot for them to operate."
According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the findings. However, Chinese officials have historically denied cyberattack claims.
The Trump administration has taken a strong stance against China for its alleged intellectual property theft.
In December 2018, Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, was arrested in Vancouver after the US Justice Department unsealed a host of criminal charges, including bank fraud, obstruction of justice and theft of technology, against the company. Last week, the Canadian Department of Justice decided to allow extradition proceedings against Meng to begin. Her extradition hearing is scheduled for March 6.
On top of that, China and the United States have been engaged in a trade war since US President Donald Trump announced in June that $50 billion worth of Chinese goods would be subject to 25 percent tariffs in a bid to fix the US-Chinese trade deficit. Since then, several rounds of tariffs have been exchanged by the two countries.