Chinese hackers backed by the People’s Republic of China accessed internal data from both the McCain and Obama campaigns in the lead-up to the 2008 elections, according to a report from NBC News. They were, apparently, looking for information pertaining to the two campaigns' positions on China. U.S. intelligence officials disclosed details of the hack to NBC just before the start of a summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The hack, by the way, isn't news to either campaign. After the FBI detected the hack in the summer of 2008, NBC News explains, the Obama campaign hired a security expert to deal exclusively with the data breach. They've also referred to the hack in public before, but not in a way that specifically points to government-backed Chinese hackers.
It sounds like the cyber attack was actually a successful "phishing" scheme, albeit a very sophisticated one. The campaign's computers were compromised when at least one employee clicked through to download an "agenda" for an upcoming meeting, according to NBC. The attachment launched a virus, which proceeded to bury itself pretty thoroughly in the campaign's digital infrastructure.
The hackers even, apparently, accessed a letter pledging McCain's support for Taiwan before it was sent, and then called the campaign to complain about it:
"On July 25, 2008, McCain had signed a personal letter — drafted on campaign computers — pledging his support for the U.S. –Taiwanese relationship and Ma’s efforts to modernize the country’s military. A copy of the letter has been obtained by NBC News.
But before the letter had even been delivered, a top McCain foreign policy adviser got a phone call from a senior Chinese diplomat in Washington complaining about the correspondence. “He was putting me on notice that they knew this was going on,” said Randall Schriver, a former State Department official who was serving as a top McCain adviser on Asian policy. “It certainly struck me as odd that they would be so well-informed.”
In a way, the 2008 campaign hack seems to be kind of a prelude to what has become a seemingly ubiquitous cyber spying campaign, sometimes with connections to the Chinese government. The hackers have reportedly targeted plans for Pentagon weapons systems, critical U.S. infrastructure, major news organizations, for starters. China denies all connections to the hacks, even going so far as to argue that it's actually U.S. hackers targeting Chinese targets that constitute the real cyberwar crisis.
Cybersecurity, as you might expect, is on the list of talking points for the Obama-Xi summit starting tomorrow. But it looks like China isn't seriously considering backing off the hackathon: in late June, the Chinese People's Liberation Army will reportedly conduct a cyberwar training drill.