A recent series of cyber attacks on Japanese Internet sites originated in China and were viewed as a possible prelude to military action, according to defense officials familiar with details of the attacks.
Japan’s National Police Agency revealed last week that at least 19 Japanese websites were hit by cyber attacks timed to increase tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku islands.
U.S. officials said the sites affected included Japan’s Defense Ministry, Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, and the country’s supreme court. Banking and utilities networks also were hit.
Other sites that were attacked included Japan’s Statistics Bureau and the government’s Internet TV, which were temporarily blocked. A university hospital network also was hit.
Earlier this month, up to six Chinese military vessels moved into Japanese waters and then withdrew, Japan’s coast guard reported.
According to one U.S. official, the Chinese-origin cyber attacks are considered a preview of how China’s military would conduct the opening phase of a military campaign. The official did not say China is preparing some type of military engagement with Japan over the islands, but warned that one could erupt through miscalculation.
The latest cyber attacks began in mid-September and appeared timed to Beijing’s growing animosity toward Japan over the island dispute.
The Japanese police said in a statement that the cyber attacks were “presumably connected” to the islands dispute. The attack targets were posted on the web site of the Chinese hacker group “Honker Union” and included “government executive agencies and important infrastructure companies.”
The National Police Agency stepped up monitoring of websites through the Cyber Force Center and alerted organizations listed as the attack targets. The center was seeking to analyze the attacks and prevent their spread, the statement said.
Tatsuo Kawabata, Internal Affairs and Communications minister, told Kyodo News that the ministry’s network was hit with an intermittent attack for a total of seven-and-a-half hours beginning Sept. 15. The attack was most intense on Sept. 16, when 95 percent of the traffic to the site originated in China.
The recent cyber attacks appeared to be less sophisticated than the kinds of cyber attacks that the Pentagon has detected in recent years and would likely precede a military conflict.
However, the attacks also appeared designed to give China’s government deniability for the digital strikes and could also be multiple purpose strikes for both political and military goals.
Many of the attacked websites were replaced with a Chinese flag and proclamations that China owned the Senkakus.
Japan’s National Police Association reported that the Chinese hackers had targeted 300 organizations in Japan, and that several thousand Chinese had posted notices of the planned attacks and hacker tools to be used on a chat site called “YY Chat.”
An official said one Chinese group behind the attacks was identified as a well-known group that is suspected of having ties to the Chinese government.
The group is called the Honker Union and surfaced several months ago after a period of relative quiet, the official said.