Norway’s police intelligence unit PST and national security officials have been quietly investigating the theft of all email belonging to the deputy leader of the Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee, veteran Member of Parliament Michael Tetzschner. He’s been among Norway’s most outspoken critics of China, from which another attack on the entire Parliament’s email is believed to have originated last winter.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported last week that the attack on Tetzschner’s email in February was targeted specifically against the 67-year-old MP. It occurred a month before another much broader attack against the entire Parliament in March. Last summer, after months of investigation, the Norwegian government announced that the attack in March is believed to have been carried out from China.
It was so serious that Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide summoned China’s ambassador to her office in July. “Chinese authorities have a responsibility to make sure this type of activity doesn’t happen within their territory,” Søreide told news bureau NTB at the time. “Our intelligence information is that this attack came from China. We must speak out against this when our most important democratic institution is affected in this manner.”
The attackers exploited a security hole in the Microsoft Exchange service used by Parliament. That’s also now believed to be how the attack on Tetzschner’s specific account at the Parliament (Stortinget) was carried out a month earlier. The attacks reflect others around the world that also prompted officials in the US, NATO, the EU and several other countries to issue coordinated statements directed at China. “Intelligence and national security services in many countries have tried to find and analyze the digital traces that always remain after this type of cyber operation,” Søreide said. “Our conclusions and results are quite clear.”
MP has warned his correspondents
Tetzschner, meanwhile, told Aftenposten that he earlier had been called into Parliament to receive a “confidential message” that couldn’t be given over the phone. “I was told that someone had broken into the email system and taken out all my correspondence,” he told the newspaper. That amounted to at least 4,000 emails, many of them containing attachments, that he had archived over the years.
It’s believed to be the first time a high-ranking Norwegian politician has been subjected to such a targeted and extensive cyber attack. Tetzschner sent out an email last week, through a secure email service, to many people with whom he’s had email contact since 2009. He informed them that their correspondence with him over the years had been seized in the attack in which he was the sole target.
Chinese officials have strongly denied that either the attack on Tetzschner or the one on Parliament in March originated in China. They have called allegations against China “groundless,” dismissed them as attempts to make China look bad and insisted, in a mail of their own to Aftenposten, that China itself is trying to “battle illegal activity on the Internet.” Last summer, the Chinese embassy in Oslo issued a press release also complaining that the Norwegian government had not contacted them in order to “verify” their information about the attacks, before going public with it.
Commentator Harald Stanghelle wrote last week that “everyone understands that a digital dictatorship like China (known for its expertise in surveillance and quickly censoring all forms of media) has a full overview of who is attacking other countries’ interests from Chinese territory.”
‘Just a boring man…’
Tetzschner, who has strongly criticized China’s brutal crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and the mass confinement of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang regin, is one of of two Norwegian members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which seeks ways of counteracting China’s increasing global influence. He was also among the few Norwegian politicians who met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Dalai Lama on his last visit to Norway in 2014.
The Norwegian government and many other officials including Søreide have been more restrained in their criticism of China, in order to avoid another breakdown in diplomatic and trade relations. The hacking attacks, however, are viewed as so serious that both the government and the president of the Norwegian Parliament, Tone Wilhelmsen Trøen, are calling them”unacceptable and extremely serious.” Trøen also stated that “it must be expected that Chinese authorities do what they can to prevent such attacks from happening. An attack on Storting is an attack on our democracy.” Norway’s official response is another indication of a recently sharper tone against China.
Tetzschner, who’s soon to leave Parliament, said he’s been told by data experts that he didn’t violate any security routines that could have aided the hackers. He nonetheless felt a need to warn those with whom he’s corresponded of the attack. “But I’m just a non-socialist, boring man,” he told Aftenposten, “so they (the hackers) won’t find anything compromising (in his mails), or anything that could be used to put pressure on me.”