BOSTON - Chinese hackers eavesdropped on the computers of five European foreign ministries before last September's G20 Summit, which was dominated by the Syrian crisis, according to research by computer security firm FireEye Inc
The hackers infiltrated the ministries' computer networks by sending emails to staff containing tainted files with titles such as "US-military-options-in-Syria," said FireEye, which sells virus fighting technology to companies.
When recipients opened these documents, they loaded malicious code on to their personal computers.
For about a week in late August, California-based FireEye said its researchers were able to monitor the "inner workings"of the main computer server used by the hackers to conduct their reconnaissance and move across compromised systems.
FireEye lost access to the hackers after they moved to another server shortly before the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. FireEye said it believes the hackers were preparing to start stealing data just as the researchers lost access.
The US company declined to identify the nations whose ministries were hacked, although it said they were all members of the European Union. FireEye said it reported the attacks to the victims through the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
A spokeswoman for the FBI, Jenny Shearer, declined to comment. "The theme of the attacks was US military intervention in Syria," said FireEye researcher Nart Villeneuve, one of six researchers who prepared the report. "That seems to indicate something more than intellectual property theft...The intent was to target those involved with the G20."
The Sept. 5-6 G20 summit was dominated by discussion of the Syrian crisis, with some European leaders putting pressure on US President Barack Obama to hold off on taking military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Villeneuve said he was confident that the hackers were from China based on a variety of technical evidence, including the language used on their control server, and the machines that they used to test their malicious code.