China Reportedly Probed Alaskan Networks Ahead of Governor’s Trade Mission

The report by Massachusetts-based Recorded Future alleges the state was a target of cyberespionage in the weeks before and during Gov. Bill Walker's visit to the country.

by Alex DeMarban, Alaska Dispatch News / August 17, 2018
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(TNS) — A cybersecurity firm says a Chinese university probed computer networks of Alaska state departments and businesses during Gov. Bill Walker's trade mission to China in an apparent attempt to "ascertain vulnerabilities and gain illegitimate access."

The firm, Recorded Future, published a report on Thursday that said the attack originated from computer infrastructure at Tsinghua University. It named the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and other state departments among the targeted networks.

The report says Alaska is not alone as the target of "cyberespionage" from Tsinghua infrastructure, called an elite Chinese university by Recorded Future.

But the probing came as Alaska seeks investment from major Chinese-owned companies, including oil company Sinopec, for the $43 billion Alaska LNG project that would export North Slope natural gas in part by pipeline, according to Recorded Future, an Internet technology company based in Massachusetts.

Recorded Future suggests the effort was an attempt to give China an upper hand in negotiations with the state. An important part of the trip involved the prospect of a gas pipeline partnership between Alaska and China, Recorded Future says.

The Alaska Gasline Development Corp., the state agency leading the negotiations with the Chinese companies, has no evidence hackers breached its system, according to Jesse Carlstrom, an AGDC spokesperson.

The report says: "Recorded Future first observed the scanning activity against Alaskan networks in late March, only a few weeks after Gov. Walker announced a trade delegation to China" dubbed Opportunity Alaska."

"The activity picked up for a few days prior to the delegation arriving on May 20, 2018, and dropped off as the delegation arrived. Probing of the Alaskan networks remained at low levels until May 28 as the delegation concluded its activities, then ramped up considerably as delegates left China," the report says.

"The spike in scanning activity at the conclusion of trade discussions on related topics indicates that the activity was likely an attempt to gain insight into the Alaskan perspective on the trip and strategic advantage in the post-visit negotiations," the report says.

The cybersecurity firm said the "reconnaissance activity" targeted organizations involved in industries "at the heart of the trade discussions, such as oil and gas."

The state's Department of Natural Resources is a key state agency involved in the Alaska LNG project that helps oversee the oil and gas industry.

The state's gasline corporation, AGDC, can enter into contracts related to the proposed pipeline and gas processing facilities in consultation with DNR and the Department of Revenue.

In addition to naming DNR, the report named "state of Alaska government" networks as the target of the probing.

AGDC was not specifically named in the report.

"AGDC is not aware of any cybersecurity breaches," Carlstrom, said in an statement.

AGDC employs top-end cybersecurity measures and is taking steps to boost those further, the agency said.

It's "in regular contact with the FBI to ensure AGDC cybersecurity is as tight as possible while still allowing for business negotiations to continue efficiently and effectively," Carlstrom said.

The agency has said it wants to secure binding agreements with Sinopec, Bank of China and China Investment Corp. before year's end, to help move the project toward construction.

Austin Baird, a spokesman for Walker, a strong proponent of an Alaska LNG deal with Chinese companies, did not immediately provide comment to ADN on Thursday morning.

Reuters reported the story early Thursday.

©2018 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.