Report: Penn State targeted in international hacking plot

Penn State was among dozens of universities targeted by a Chinese hacking group as part of a far-reaching plot to steal maritime technology research meant for military use, The Wall Street Journal reported this week, citing unnamed sources.

A report from iDefense, a cybersecurity intelligence agency that’s part of the company Accenture Security, identified 27 universities across the United States, Canada and Southeast Asia that were targeted by a Chinese hacking group known simultaneously as Temp.Periscope, Leviathan or Mudcarp, the Journal found.

The Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, which focuses in part on undersea weapons technology development for the Navy, was an intended target of the hacking effort, according to officials referenced by the newspaper. iDefense said the overall cyber campaign dates to April 2017, if not earlier, the Journal reported.

Penn State neither confirmed nor denied a security breach. In a statement shared with the Centre Daily Times, the administration said it is well aware of the threat of cyberattacks and “works closely with the government to protect our networks against this dynamic and sophisticated threat.”

If a security breach happens, “it is our responsibility to immediately notify the government and our partners,” the university said. The breach “would then be investigated by the federal government.”

A representative from the ARL at Penn State did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

The potential security breaches happened when academics opened spear phishing emails that appeared as legitimate messages but turned out to be filled with malware, the Journal reported.

FireEye, a U.S. cybersecurity company, has been tracking Temp.Periscope since 2013, according to blog posts on its website. The Chinese state-sponsored hacking group targets engineering, transportation and the defense industry as part of China’s endeavors to modernize its naval operations — efforts that have intensified since late 2017.

Penn State does millions of dollars of research for the U.S. Navy through the ARL and several other departments. The ARL was established in 1945 at the request of the Navy and is now a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center, according to its website.

Penn State receives, on average, about $550 million in federal funds for research each year, according to the university. Public records are spotty on the funding breakdown, but in 2016, the defense department contributed some 40 percent — a reported $212.5 million — of the federal funding Penn State received for research.

Last March, the Navy awarded the ARL a research contract worth $2.1 billion over 10 years, the largest in university history. The contract, administered by the Naval Sea Systems Command, is designated for research and development to improve national security.

Penn State is also affiliated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a research and education nonprofit in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, through a unit called the Acoustic Communications Group, according to the Journal. iDefense said it was confident that hackers probably had breached the nonprofit’s network, the newspaper reported.

The ACG focuses on improving systems for undersea communication “customized for specific scientific or Navy applications,” according to its website.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.