The same group of China-backed cyberhackers who breached U.S. government data and infiltrated records from health insurance carrier Anthem has apparently hacked United Airlines, according to a report by Bloomberg News.
The incident happened in May or June, the report said, quoting several people familiar with the investigation.
United is the second-biggest carrier transporting millions of passengers per year. If its security system was breached, it means the hackers have information on where travelers are going, how long, and likely other personal information as well.
In particular, having travel records of government or military personnel could prove to be useful for the Chinese government if it is involved with the hackers. United is one of the country's biggest government contractors in addition to being a commercial airline.
Bloomberg noted that "China's intelligence apparatus is amassing a vast database. Files stolen from the federal personnel office by this one China-based group could allow the hackers to identify Americans who work in defense and intelligence, including those on the payrolls of contractors. U.S. officials believe the group has links to the Chinese government, people familiar with the matter have said."
James Lewis, a senior fellow in cybersecurity at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Bloomberg that the travel information is invaluable if the hackers match international flights by Chinese officials or industrialists with trips taken by U.S. personnel to the same cities at the same time.
"You're suspicious of some guy; you happen to notice that he flew to Papua New Guinea on June 23 and now you can see that the Americans have flown there on June 22 or 23," Lewis said. "If you're China, you're looking for those things that will give you a better picture of what the other side is up to."
Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in a statement: "The Chinese government and the personnel in its institutions never engage in any form of cyberattack. We firmly oppose and combat any forms of cyberattacks."
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