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Chinese espionage for western military technologies has reached a new stage. Chinese hackers have targeted over two dozen universities in the US and Canada in an apparent bid to steal key maritime military research.

“The hackers sent universities spear phishing emails doctored to appear as if they came from partner universities, but they unleashed a malicious payload when opened,” according to a report by cybersecurity firm iDefense accessed by wsj.com.

All 27 universities — including the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, Penn State and Duke University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — were found to have been hit by the hackers. Some universities in Canada and Southeast Asia were also targeted, according to ndtv.com.

It appears that all the universities targeted either studied underwater technology or had faculty with relevant backgrounds. “The Department of the Navy recognizes the serious nature of evolving cyber threats and continuously bolsters the department’s cybersecurity culture and awareness, along with our cyber defenses and information technology capabilities,” Navy Commander J. Dorsey stated.

Higher education research institutions are a rich source for China’s larger information collection efforts. This is illustrated by cybersecurity firm FireEye’s research into China-nexus cyber espionage group APT40:  The company has observed “APT40 target naval-related research projects at a US university and carry out a wider wave of espionage activity targeting engineering and maritime industries. Academic research into defense or dual-use technologies is a frequent target of espionage efforts.”