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Cyber attacks threaten every industry in every country around the world – and Canada is not immune (KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
Cyber attacks threaten every industry in every country around the world – and Canada is not immune (KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

Canada’s ‘baseless’ hacking claims a blow to relations, Beijing says Add to ...

China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing is calling the Harper government irresponsible for alleging Chinese hackers broke into a confidential Canadian computer network and questioning whether Ottawa has any real proof of this.

In a sign that China won’t back down in this war of words, which comes just months before Mr. Harper is due to visit Beijing, the Chinese leadership has issued a second rebuke of Canada and suggested this is hurting relations.

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Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang in Beijing said Thursday it’s “ irresponsible for the Canadian side to make groundless allegations against China when there is no credible evidence.”

He also called on Canada to reverse itself and repair the damage to relations.

“We urge the Canadian side to correct their mistakes, stop making baseless accusations and redress the negative impacts incurred by their statement,” Mr. Qin said.

This week marked the first time the Canadian government publicly singled out China for hacking, reporting that computers at the National Research Council were breached and pointing the finger at “a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper later refused to relent when asked Wednesday how the government was so sure China was responsible. “We have experts in the cybersecurity field that are monitoring this very closely. It’s an ongoing battle. They tell me there is no doubt as to the source of this particular attack,” he said.

The incident made for strained conversation in China Tuesday, where Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was visiting to promote two-way trade.

The Conservative government’s relations with China have been up and down. They started off frosty after Mr. Harper took power in 2006 and made much of Beijing’s human-rights violations but the Tories later warmed to China and sought to expand investment and trade. However in 2012 Ottawa imposed a cap on state-owned foreign investment in the oil sands, a measure that was aimed largely at Beijing.

The hacking incident sounds a warning of sorts for Canada, which some say pursued trade with China at the expense of other considerations.

The spying allegations “might wake up Canada to the idea that relationship with China is a little more complex than people have been considering for the past 20 years,” said John Gruetzner, a consultant with lengthy experience in Canada-China trade. “You just have to recognize that one element of Canada should be, and will, profit from friendship with China. But the other part of Canada has to be more vigilant in how it protects Canadian interests.”

That’s true not just for political leaders, but for the business sector as well, Mr. Gruetzner said. There is risk in dealing with Chinese interests, and part of that risk involves the threat of electronic espionage.

“We have to get away from straight boosterism,” Mr. Gruetzner said.

Federal officials refused to say what data was stolen in the cyberattack on the NRC, including whether the hackers got their hands on corporate secrets or intellectual property developed by companies.

Canada has been on guard against Beijing for some time. In 2007, the head of Canada’s spy agency named China as this country’s top espionage threat.

This is not the first penetration of Canadian government computers by hackers from the People’s Republic of China. Past targets are believed to include Parliament Hill, the Finance Department and Treasury Board, the agency that tracks spending and priorities. In previous cases, government officials did not publicly lay blame for the attacks.

Corinne Charette, the federal government’s chief information officer, said this latest intrusion was discovered by the Communications Security Establishment Canada, the country’s electronic spying agency.

She said the government doesn’t know if Chinese hackers made their way beyond the research council’s computers and into the federal government’s wide computer network.

Separately, Canada’s privacy watchdog says the National Research Council (NRC) computer system breached contained personal information.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada says it learned earlier than the public about the incident, having been alerted July 23 by the NRC.

“At this point, what we can say is that this appears to be a serious security issue, however, we understand the full extent of the impact still has to be determined,” Tobi Cohen, spokeswoman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner said.

“We intend to continue communicating with the NRC to ensure we remain informed of any relevant privacy issues and to determine next steps,” Ms. Cohen said.

Follow us on Twitter: @stevenchase, @nvanderklippe

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