Chinese and Iranian hackers sent bogus emails to staff working for the Biden and Trump US presidential campaigns, respectively, in an attempt to access sensitive information, Google said on Thursday.
Shane Huntley, head of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, said in a tweet that a hacking group with links to the Chinese government, dubbed APT31, targeted the campaign of Democratic nominee Joe Biden with so-called phishing emails. Another group sponsored by Iran, APT35, targeted Donald Trump’s campaign, he added.
While there was “no sign of compromise”, Mr Huntley said that both the affected users and federal law enforcement were notified.
“We are aware of reports from Google that a foreign actor has made unsuccessful attempts to access the personal email accounts of campaign staff,” the Biden campaign said in a statement.
“We have known from the beginning of our campaign that we would be subject to such attacks and we are prepared for them . . . We will remain vigilant against these threats, and will ensure that the campaign’s assets are secured,” it added.
The Trump campaign said that it had been briefed on the unsuccessful hacking attempt, but would not share more details on the cyber security precautions it has in place.
The revelations come as cyber security officials remain on high alert for foreign efforts to meddle in the forthcoming US elections, after evidence emerged that Russia interfered in the 2016 vote.
In 2018, Robert Mueller, former special counsel, charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
Microsoft said in October that it had uncovered evidence of attempted attacks of an unnamed US presidential campaign, plus US government officials, by hackers with links to the Iranian government. No US presidential campaign accounts were compromised.
It is first time China has been accused of attempts to hack US presidential candidates in the 2020 election and comes at a time of tense relations between Washington and Beijing, with both sides repeatedly accusing the other of failures related to coronavirus. Mr Trump had previously accused China of trying to meddle in the 2018 midterm elections.
US intelligence agencies last month warned that China is attempting to steal vital coronavirus research related to testing vaccines and treatments, by hacking US research groups.
“As we have seen in recent history, APT groups targeting political campaigns is nothing new,” said Chris Ragland, security engineer at cyber security group Digital Shadows.
“These groups may be looking to use information that they obtain to sow discord in the country of the ongoing campaign. They may also use it for more traditional intelligence collection to inform other actions.”
Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington