China suspected of cyberattack on Apple

The Chinese government could be behind a hack on Apple’s cloud storage service, just as the company launches its newest phone in China.

Over the weekend, many users in the country inadvertently began giving passwords and sensitive data to hackers that may be working for the Chinese government, security analysts said.

Analysts at GreatFire, a website that monitors blocked websites in China, reported that “Chinese authorities are now staging a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack on Apple’s iCloud,” referring to a type of cyberattack in which a hacker jumps in between a person and the website they are visiting, relaying messages back and forth but also picking up their data. 

Responding to the attacks on Tuesday, Apple acknowledged the intrusions and unveiled a new guide for people to verify that they are securely connected to the iCloud storage service.

“Apple is deeply committed to protecting our customers’ privacy and security,” the company said on its new page. “We’re aware of intermittent organized network attacks using insecure certificates to obtain user information, and we take this very seriously.” 

The company did not indicate whether or not it believed the Chinese government was behind the hack. A spokesman declined to comment further.

The Chinese government denied that it was behind the attack.

A foreign ministry spokesman told reporters that the government was “resolutely opposed” to hacking, and the state-owned Internet provider claimed the allegation was “untrue and unfounded,” according to the BBC. 

Still, the wording of Apple’s statement “suggests something serious” said forensics researcher Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS security expert.

Contacts in China are telling David Kennedy, CEO of information security company TrustedSec, that this “definitely occurred” and is “pretty significant countrywide,” Kennedy said in an interview.

The Chinese government has been accused of hacking other tech giants such as Google and Yahoo before, but Kennedy thinks this most recent incident “shows the expansiveness of what China’s trying to do.”

The FBI last week warned U.S. businesses it was seeing evidence of Chinese-sponsored cyber espionage.

China may be targeting Apple because of the ongoing, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Kennedy pointed out Apple iCloud is primarily used for backing up pictures and text messages.  

“They’re trying to get a hold of who the activists are,” he said.

China and the U.S. have also tussled publicly in recent days over hacking ahead of next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. But Kennedy was wary any fallout from an iCloud hack would spill over into negotiations. The upcoming talks are “more about intellectual property theft,” he said.

The new attack comes just as Apple releases its new operating system and as the iPhone 6 is unveiled in China.

The new iPhones are automatically encrypted to prevent anyone from accessing data without a password — a feature that has earned criticism from the FBI and other U.S. officials.

Many Apple devices automatically back up their messages, photos and contacts to the iCloud server, however, so access to that connection could give a hacker access to much of their data. 

In order to protect their data, users should heed any warnings they receive from websites about digital certificates, Apple said on Tuesday, and not enter passwords at potentially unsafe sites.

—Cory Bennett contributed

This story was updated at 6:11 p.m.