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Ocean-Focused Research Center Attacked By Chinese Hackers: Huh? Why?

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The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which is a private and nonprofit facility doing scientific research focused on the world's oceans, revealed that it was the recipient of an aggressive hacking attack that can seemingly be traced back to China.

The hackers were able to access the data and email of Woods Hole, WHOI Director and President Mark Abbott said to the institution's staff earlier this week.

WHOI general counsel and internal investigation head Christopher Land said that so far, there are no signs that the data stolen by the hackers have been used for malicious purposes.

Why would a Chinese hacker attempt to break into Woods Hole's systems? It might have something to do with the fact that the institution also does classified research for the Department of Defense.

Land said, however, that the data related to the classified work is located in a separate system that was not infiltrated by the hacking attack.

"The attack was similar to those that have been experienced by many federal agencies, defense contractors and other businesses developing advanced technologies," said Abbott in his letter to WHOI staff, adding that the investigation into the hacking attack is being carried out.

Early results of the investigation, however, indicate that the reason for the hack was not to acquire personal identity or financial information.

Abbott also said that WHOI has tapped Mandiant, a cybersecurity company, to participate in the investigation of the hacking attack. While the attack was detected by WHOI back in June, the institution only disclosed it this week partly because Mandiant did not want the hackers to know that an investigation has been launched.

Abbott said Mandiant believes that the hacking attack was made by a China-based group, with the conclusion coming from Mandiant's experience in investigating such attacks and the tactics, tools and procedures used by the group.

WHOI issued an order to its about 1,100 employees and 300 affiliated staff members to change the passwords to their work email accounts.

The revelation of the China-based hacking attack on WHOI is the latest news on the cyberwar between China and the United States. The data breach, however, happened before the talks between United States President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which resulted in a cyberspace truce between the two countries.

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