The compromise of a US Navy contractor’s computer earlier this year, resulting in the theft of significant amounts of sensitive data, has been attributed to the Chinese Ministry of State Security by US officials.
The breach took place in January and February, and targeted a contractor who works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. The data stolen appears to have included 614 GB of information about a project referred to as ‘Sea Dragon’, plans for supersonic missiles to be used by US submarines, signals and sensor data, submarine radio room information concerning cryptographic systems, and the Navy submarine development unit’s electronic warfare library.
Anything that degrades our comparative advantage in undersea warfare is of extreme significance
– Admiral James Stavridis (Rtd.)
What exactly the ‘Sea Dragon’ project involves remains mysterious, as much of the information about it is classified. Since it began in 2015, the Pentagon has requested or used more than £300 million on the project, however, and the Defense Department said that it is expected to provide “disruptive offensive capability” by “integrating an existing weapon system with an existing Navy platform.”
Given the increasing military presence in the South China Sea area, some have considered the nature of the stolen data a particular cause for concern.
“It’s very disturbing,” said James M. Talent, a former senator and member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “But it’s of a piece with what the Chinese have been doing. They are completely focused on getting advanced weapons technology through all kinds of means. That includes stealing secrets from our defense contractors.”
“Anything that degrades our comparative advantage in undersea warfare is of extreme significance if we ever had to execute our war plans for dealing with China,” James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a retired admiral who served as supreme allied commander at NATO, told The Washington Post.
On the other hand, the New York Times pointed out that this incident is “hardly the largest, or the most sensitive” theft by Chinese hackers, and that “to most intelligence officials this is just another espionage case, bearing similarities to what the United States does around the world.”
The breach is being investigated by the Navy, with assistance from the FBI. In response to the incident, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had allegedly asked the Pentagon inspector general’s office to review contractor cybersecurity issues.