Marriott clues ‘link hackers to China’

Investigators looking into breach found tools used in attacks tied to Beijing experts

By Reuters in New York
  • Published 7.12.18, 3:59 AM
  • Updated 7.12.18, 9:24 AM
  • 2 mins read
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In this Tuesday, April 30, 2013, file photo, a man works on a new Marriott sign in front of the former Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. AP

Hackers behind a massive breach at hotel group Marriott International Inc left clues suggesting they were working for a Chinese government intelligence gathering operation, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Marriott said last week that a hack that began four years ago had exposed the records of up to 500 million customers in its Starwood hotels reservation system.

Private investigators looking into the breach have found hacking tools, techniques and procedures previously used in attacks attributed to Chinese hackers, said three sources who were not authorised to discuss the company’s private probe into the attack.

That suggests that Chinese hackers may have been behind a campaign designed to collect information for use in Beijing’s espionage efforts and not for financial gain, two of the sources said.

While China has emerged as the lead suspect in the case, the sources cautioned it was possible somebody else was behind the hack because other parties had access to the same hacking tools, some of which have previously been posted online.

Identifying the culprit is further complicated by the fact that investigators suspect multiple hacking groups may have simultaneously been inside Starwood’s computer networks since 2014, said one of the sources.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment directly on the issue, but said China strongly opposed any form of hacking. “If the relevant side has any evidence, they can provide it to the Chinese side, and relevant authorities will investigate in accordance with the law,” he told a daily news briefing.

“But we resolutely oppose gratuitous accusations when it comes to Internet security,” he added.

If investigators confirm that China was behind the attack, that could complicate already tense relations between Washington and Beijing, amid an ongoing tariff dispute and US accusations of Chinese espionage and the theft of trade secrets.

Marriott spokeswoman Connie Kim declined to comment, saying “We’ve got nothing to share,” when asked about involvement of Chinese hackers. Marriott disclosed the hack on Friday, prompting US and UK regulators to quickly launch probes into the case.

Compromised customer data included names, passport numbers, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates and email addresses. A small percentage of accounts included scrambled payment card data, said Kim.

Marriott acquired Starwood in 2016 for $13.6 billion, including the Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, St Regis, Aloft, Le Meridien, Tribute, Four Points and Luxury Collection hotel brands, forming the world’s largest hotel operator.

The hack began in 2014, shortly after an attack on the US government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) compromised sensitive data on tens of millions of employees.

White House National Security advisor John Bolton recently said he believed Beijing was behind the OPM hack, a claim first made by the US in 2015. Beijing has strongly denied those charges. Former FBI official Robert Anderson said that the Marriott case looked similar to hacks that the Chinese government was conducting in 2014 as part of its intelligence operations.