U.S. Warned Japan of China’s Hacking of Official Diplomatic Telegram System; Reinforcing Cybersecurity Key Concern

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Foreign Ministry’s telecommunications system for official telegrams, including classified diplomatic information, had come under cyber-attacks by China and sensitive information had been compromised, according to government sources.

In 2020, the U.S. government warned Japan of the hacking and asked it to take action. The Japanese side has sine accelerated efforts to strengthen countermeasures by inspecting the computer networks of major government entities.

It is highly unusual for the system for official diplomatic telegrams, the confidentiality of which is of particular importance, to have been breached. The warning underlines Washington’s strong concerns about Japan’s cybersecurity.

According to the sources, the U.S. government informed Japan in the summer of 2020, when the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in power, that the computer networks of Japanese diplomatic missions abroad had been breached by Chinese hackers. Although Washington did not disclose the specifics of the leaked information and how it learned of the cyber-attacks, it suggested that official telegrams between the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, among other parties, were being widely accessed by Chinese authorities.

At the time, then U.S. National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone and other officials were prompted to visit Japan to meet with Japanese high-ranking government officials. Japanese and U.S. working-level officials also discussed how to respond to the matter.

As a result, the two countries agreed that Japan would improve vulnerable computer programs by having five bodies handling classified information — the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the National Police Agency, the Public Security Intelligence Agency and the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office — inspect their networks. The status of the improvements has been shared between the two countries, while Washington has asked Tokyo to continue such inspections and efforts to reinforce cybersecurity.

Official telegrams include highly classified information that Japanese diplomats have received from foreign governments and other sources. To prevent an external breach, such information is sent and received via international IPVPN, a network that uses advanced encryption methods without going through the regular internet.

The Foreign Ministry has not disclosed any details about, or even the occurrence of, such a cyber-attack. The ministry’s Information and Communications Division, which supervises official telegrams, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that it refrains from making comments on this matter for information security reasons.

Regarding cyber-attacks on Japan, The Washington Post reported in August last year that Chinese military hackers had compromised the Japanese government’s computer networks which handle defense secrets. However, this is the first time that a breach of the Foreign Ministry’s system on diplomatic telegrams has been revealed.

To drastically strengthen its cybersecurity, the Japanese government aims to introduce a so-called active cyber defense system, in which information networks will be monitored from peacetime to detect signs and prevent serious cyber-attacks. However, it is expected that the submission of related legislation to the ordinary Diet session will be postponed.