Chinese hackers are believed to have attempted to penetrate India’s most sensitive government office in the latest sign of rising tensions between the two rival Asian powers, The Times has learnt.
M. K. Narayanan, India’s National Security Adviser, said his office and other government departments were targeted on December 15, the same date that US companies reported cyber attacks from China.
“This was not the first instance of an attempt to hack into our computers,” Mr Narayanan told The Times in a rare interview.
He said that the attack came in the form of an e-mail with a PDF attachment containing a “Trojan” virus, which allows a hacker to access a computer remotely and download or delete files. The virus was detected and officials were told not to log on until it was eliminated, he said.
“People seem to be fairly sure it was the Chinese. It is difficult to find the exact source but this is the main suspicion. It seems well founded,” he said, adding that India was co-operating with America and Britain to bolster its cyber defences.
China has denied any role in the hacking attacks, which began on December 15 and also targeted US defence contractors and finance and technology companies, including Google. “Hacking in whatever form is prohibited by law in China,” said Jiang Yu, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
Nevertheless, the incident is likely to place further strain on India’s relations with the Chinese, who humiliated the Indian Army in a brief war over their Himalayan border in 1962. Relations had been thawing over the past decade but took a sudden turn for the worse last year, when the dispute flared again, prompting India to deploy two more army divisions and fighter jets on its eastern border.
Underpinning the tensions are India’s concerns about China expanding its influence in Pakistan — India’s arch foe — Burma, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, as well as challenging its naval power in the Indian Ocean.
Beijing feels threatened by Delhi’s warming relations with Washington, which lifted a ban on selling nuclear material to India in 2008 and is poised to sell it billions of dollars worth of weapons.
Mr Narayanan said he expected China to be an increasingly high priority for India’s security apparatus — but that the main threat still came from Pakistan-based militants, such as those blamed for the attack on Mumbai in November 2008.
He said that Pakistan had done nothing to dismantle militant groups since the Mumbai attack, and criticised Britain, in particular, for accepting its excuse that such groups were beyond its control. “The British are still blinkered on this,” he said. “We believe Pakistan’s policy of using terror as a policy weapon remains.”
India is particularly anxious to prevent a militant attack from disrupting the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October. “From Pakistan’s point of view, it’s important to disrupt the Games so you can claim that India is not a safe place,” Mr Narayanan said.
By Richard Beeston and Jeremy Page