Marriott data breach linked to Chinese intelligence-gathering

12 Dec 2018

JW Marriott hotel in Chicago. Image: teamtime/Depositphotos

International hotel chain Marriott is still reeling from a massive data breach, which is now being linked to Chinese intelligence efforts.

At the tail end of November, Marriott International announced that its Starwood reservation database had been interfered with, potentially affecting the personal data of a whopping 500m customers.

Now, The New York Times has reported that the cyberattack was part of a Chinese intelligence-gathering operation, which also targeted security clearance files of millions of American citizens, as well as major US health insurers.

The Starwood hack was publicly revealed last month, not long before the US began a 90-day trade truce negotiated by both China and the Trump administration at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Sources point to China

The Washington Post said that its sources “cautioned that the investigation has not been completed, so definitive conclusions cannot be drawn”. It continued: “But the sweep and tactics of the hack, which took place over four years before being discovered, prompted immediate speculation that it was carried out by a national government.”

According to the newspaper, preliminary findings point to the breach being executed by actors linked to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MSS has been tied to many Chinese government espionage operations around sensitive US networks recently.

Trump administration plans sanctions

The New York Times added that the hack into the Starwood database comes as “the Trump administration is planning actions targeting China’s trade, cyber and economic policies, perhaps within days”.

These actions are said to include indictments against Chinese hackers and declassification of intelligence reports detailing Chinese cyberespionage efforts.

An executive order to make it more difficult for Chinese firms to be able to purchase telecommunications equipment components may also be on the table. The recent arrest of Huawei chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, in Canada is complicating the story further.

China has repeatedly denied accusations from the US around the development and deployment of cyberattacks.

JW Marriott hotel. Image: teamtime/Depositphotos

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects