Computers containing data relating to national security and VVIPs like Prime Minister Narendra Modi were compromised in early September after a major security breach was recorded at the NIC (National Informatics Centre), Delhi Police sources have said.
The computers broken into also stored data relating to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Indian citizens and senior government functionaries.
The NIC sets up and maintains information and communication technology and security for the government.
Delhi Police’s Special Cell filed a case immediately after the attack, which is believed to have originated from a firm in Bengaluru.
According to sources the attack began with the receipt of an e-mail to NIC employees. When a link provided in that e-mail was clicked, data stored on that machine became compromised and computer systems were affected.
Sources also said the original e-mail came from a United States company based in Bengaluru (the e-mail’s IP address originated there).
Further investigations are ongoing, the sources said.
The breach comes amid allegations a Chinese firm – Zhenhua Data Information – is conducting covert surveillance on thousands of Indians, including the Prime Minister, the President, the Vice President and the Army Chief.
Sources have said the government has constituted an expert committee (under the National Cyber Security Coordinator) to study these allegations. The committee is to submit a report inside 30 days.
In a letter to Congress leader KC Venugopal, who had raised this issue, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said the claims referred to the Overseas Key Information Database (OKID), which covers around 2.4 million individuals worldwide.
The issue has also been raised by the Foreign Ministry with Sun Weidong, the Chinese Ambassador to India. The Chinese government has said Zhenhua is a privately-owned company with no links to Beijing.
Zhenhua itself has said OKID data was collected from open sources and is no different from similar databases maintained by Western companies. They have denied accessing private information from confidential sources, Mr Jaishankar said in his letter
The row over alleged snooping and surveillance by Chinese firms comes amid a serious military stand-off between the two countries along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Ladakh.
Tensions have spiked since a violent confrontation in the Galwan region in June, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the line of duty.
Multiple talks at military, diplomatic and ministerial levels have, so far, failed to resolve the issue. The foreign ministers met in Moscow and hammered out a five-point plan to defuse the tension.
According to news agency PTI, in June, days after the Galwan incident, the Telecom Department told state-run firms MSNL and BSNL to avoid using Chinese equipment in upgrading their 4G facilities.
Allegations that Chinese firms operating in foreign countries are secretly spying on citizens of those nations have also been made by the US, which put Huawei on a blacklist in May citing national security concerns.
With input from PTI