NAIROBI--Chinese hackers targeted Kenya's government in a widespread, years-long series of digital intrusions against key ministries and state institutions, according to three sources, cybersecurity research reports and Reuters' own analysis of technical data related to the hackings.
Two of the sources assessed the hacks to be aimed, at least in part, at gaining information on debt owed to Beijing by the East African nation: Kenya is a strategic link in the Belt and Road Initiative - President Xi Jinping's plan for a global infrastructure network. "Further compromises may occur as the requirement for understanding upcoming repayment strategies becomes needed," a July 2021 research report written by a defence contractor for private clients stated. China's foreign ministry said it was "not aware" of any such hacking, while China's embassy in Britain called the accusations "baseless", adding that Beijing opposes and combats "cyberattacks and theft in all their forms." China's influence in Africa has grown rapidly over the past two decades. But, like several African nations, Kenya's finances are being strained by the growing cost of servicing external debt - much of it owed to China.
The hacking campaign demonstrates China's willingness to leverage its espionage capabilities to monitor and protect economic and strategic interests abroad, two of the sources said. The hacks constitute a three-year campaign that targeted eight of Kenya's ministries and government departments, including the presidential office, according to an intelligence analyst in the region. The analyst also shared with Reuters research documents that included the timeline of attacks, the targets, and provided some technical data relating to the compromise of a server used exclusively by Kenya's main spy agency. A Kenyan cybersecurity expert described similar hacking activity against the foreign and finance ministries. All three of the sources asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of their work. "Your allegation of hacking attempts by Chinese Government entities is not unique,"
Kenya's presidential office said, adding the government had been targeted by "frequent infiltration attempts" from Chinese, American and European hackers. "As far as we are concerned, none of the attempts were successful," it said. It did not provide further details nor respond to follow-up questions. A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Britain said China is against "irresponsible moves that use topics like cybersecurity to sow discord in the relations between China and other developing countries." "China attaches great importance to Africa's debt issue and works intensively to help Africa cope with it," the spokesperson added.