Amnesty International Canada says its computer system was hacked by a group believed to be working for the Chinese government, in the latest instance of suspected interference in Canadian affairs by Beijing.
The cyberattack, first discovered in early October, targeted the English Canadian branch of the global human-rights group, which has in recent years raised alarms about China’s harassment and intimidation of people in Canada with Uyghur and Tibetan roots, as well as those with connections to Hong Kong.
Evidence suggests the hacking may have begun more than a year ago.
Ketty Nivyabandi, Amnesty International Canada’s secretary-general, said a recent forensic audit found that the first malicious intrusion in the computer system occurred in July, 2021.
She said the audit, by cybersecurity firm Secureworks, found that the hackers were seeking information on China and Hong Kong, where Beijing has spent years quashing dissent. The intruders were also looking for information on human-rights activists working on related files.
Amnesty International said in a statement that the investigation found that “a threat group sponsored or tasked by the Chinese state” was likely behind the attack. This conclusion, the organization said, is based “on the nature of the targeted information as well as the observed tools and behaviors, which are consistent with those associated with Chinese cyberespionage threat groups.”
Ms. Nivyabandi said Amnesty International Canada is speaking publicly about the cyberattack to alert other human-rights defenders about what she called the rising threat of digital security breaches.
“This is the new reality and we need to adjust accordingly,” she said.
“As an organization advocating for human rights globally, we are very aware that we may be the target of state-sponsored attempts to disrupt or surveil our work. These will not intimidate us, and the security and privacy of our activists, staff, donors and stakeholders remain our utmost priority.”
Ms. Nivyabandi noted that Amnesty International’s section in Hong Kong was hit by a cyberattack in 2019 “under very similar circumstances, and as well believed to be connected to the Chinese state.”
She said donor and membership data were not stolen in the attack on the Canadian section, but that “otherwise it’s difficult to assess what kind of access they had in our system.”
The Chinese embassy in Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, a non-profit, said her group strongly condemns “this kind of state-sponsored cyberespionage targeting human-rights groups and individuals who are critical of Chinese Communist Party policies.”
“These cyberattacks aim at threatening the security of the groups and intimidating their supporters, including donors and participants, to deter them from continuing with their work,” she said.
Natalie Hui, a human-rights activist with Canadian Friends of Hong Kong, said she fears China is also hacking activists and smaller Chinese dissident groups.
“There are a lot of activists who are not IT savvy. We don’t have the resources and capacity to really protect ourselves against CCP machinery,” she said.
She said Ottawa should offer to help human-rights groups set up hacking safeguards.
“By providing support, they might be able to find out how widespread this problem is and shine some light on this issue,” she added.
In another example of suspected Chinese foreign interference, a Spain-based human-rights group said on Sunday that Beijing is allegedly operating five illegal police service stations in Canada – two more than previously known.
The group, Safeguard Defenders, said in a new report that, along with three Chinese police stations it had previously found in the Greater Toronto Area, it has found two more offices. One is in Vancouver, and is operated out of the Chinese city of Wenzhou, and another is in an unknown Canadian location and being run out of the city of Nantong, the group said.
The RCMP announced in October that they are investigating the police stations, where personnel have allegedly coerced Chinese nationals living abroad into returning home, or into refraining from criticizing China’s rulers. The Department of Global Affairs summoned China’s envoy in Canada over the matter.
In the House of Commons on Monday, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong demanded that Ottawa take action against Chinese diplomats found to be involved in the police stations operating on Canadian soil.
He noted that the federal government’s Indo-Pacific strategy committed Ottawa to rooting out Chinese foreign interference in Canadian domestic affairs.
“When will the government put the words of the Indo-Pacific strategy into action, push back and expel diplomats who are responsible for this outrageous violation of our sovereignty?” Mr. Chong asked.
In response, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino would say only that the RCMP are investigating allegations of foreign interference.
Safeguard Defenders said in September that it had found 54 Chinese police stations operating in countries outside China. Using statements from Chinese police and state media, the group said on Sunday, it has now discovered a total of 102 stations in 53 countries.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended November’s G20 summit in Indonesia, he raised concerns about foreign interference directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mr. Trudeau elaborated last week when he told Parliament that for many years there have been “consistent engagements by representatives of the Chinese government into Canadian communities” and into local media, as well as “reports of illicit Chinese police stations.”