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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Suspected Chinese state hackers compromised the Department of Agriculture’s National Finance Center (NFC) last year using a second “software flaw” used on the SolarWinds platform, reports Reuters.

Why it matters: The Chinese-authored breach could represent a potentially catastrophic leak of sensitive personal information of U.S. government officials — information that China’s spy services will be keen to exploit for counterintelligence purposes.

  • The flaw, which is unconnected to the massive Russian-authored compromise of SolarWinds, was used to penetrate the National Finance Center, or NFC, which is “responsible for handling the payroll of multiple government agencies, including several involved in national security, such as the FBI, State Department, Homeland Security Department and Treasury Department,” former officials told Reuters.

It’s unclear how much data was potentially accessed or exfiltrated by the Chinese hackers, but “records held by the NFC include federal employee social security numbers, phone numbers and personal email addresses as well as banking information,” and the agency is responsible for maintaining payroll for over 600,000 federal employees, writes Reuters.

  • The hackers “used computer infrastructure and hacking tools previously deployed by state-backed Chinese cyberspies,” sources told Reuters, leading investigators to attribute the breach to a Chinese state group.

Between the lines: The alleged NFC hack follows a well-established pattern for Chinese cyber operators, who have often focused on targeting large government and private-sector datasets that contain sensitive personal information.

Go deeper

Feb 2, 2021 - World

China strategies bloom in Washington

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A proliferation of new policy ideas often accompanies a changing of the guard in Washington. But this time around, growing concern over China's rise has driven debate into overdrive, as numerous stakeholders present competing visions for a U.S. response.

Why it matters: The actions the U.S. and its allies choose to take over the next few years could make the difference between a world made safer for autocracy or one in which human rights and liberal ideals still have a fighting chance.

Feb 2, 2021 - World

Biden's whole-of-National Security Council strategy

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Virtually every team in the National Security Council, from technology to global health to international economics, will incorporate China into their work, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: This is a concrete example of the "whole-of-government" approach toward China that officials from both the Biden and Trump administrations have supported.

Biden explains justification for Syria strike in letter to Congress

Photo: Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden told congressional leadership in a letter Saturday that this week's airstrike against facilities in Syria linked to Iranian-backed militia groups was consistent with the U.S. right to self-defense.

Why it matters: Some Democrats, including Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), have criticized the Biden administration for the strike and demanded a briefing.

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