U.S. officials said this week they believe China is behind a massive, years-long hack that involved the Marriott hotel chain.
The hackers are suspected to have worked with the Chinese Ministry of State Security, one official told the Associated Press.
Marriott International revealed the data breach in November, saying the information of about 500-million guests could be exposed. The company did not disclose the source of the hack, which included theft of credit card and passport numbers over four years from guests who stayed at hotels previously operated under the Starwood Hotel brand.
Here’s what we know about the Canadians affected, China’s alleged involvement, and how it’ll affect trade talks.
Canadians launch class-action lawsuit
News of China’s involvement in the data breach came as Canadians who had stayed at Marriott International Inc. and Starwood Canada ULC hotels took legal action against the companies.
At least three proposed class actions have been launched in Toronto and Montreal against the U.S.-based company.
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The plaintiffs in the actions, which have yet to be certified, are accusing the company of negligence because they say Marriott and Starwood were “reckless” with and did not safeguard personal information.
Marriott and Starwood, which have refused to share how many Canadians may have had their data breached, operate 77 former Starwood-branded hotels in Canada.
China’s alleged involvement
The New York Times reported on China’s involvement in the Marriott hack on Tuesday, noting that the find is particularly concerning because the hotel is used by American government and military officials.
Cybersecurity expert Ajay Sood, who is the general manager of Symantec Canada, told Global News that while China’s involvement is not confirmed, similar events have occurred in the past.
“China has historically gone after things like insurance companies, because they seem to be keenly interested in obtaining as much personal information as possible about their target — largely North American companies and people,” Sood said.
Officials from the Justice Department, FBI and Homeland Security told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that China is working to steal trade secrets and intellectual property from U.S. companies in order to harm America’s economy and further its own development.
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Sood raised doubts about whether this was a valid concern, explaining that Marriott is a public company and its business operations aren’t necessarily a secret.
“Running a hotel doesn’t really entail a lot of confidential know-how,” he said.
Sood explained that he believes this is more about keeping databases of personal information.
“When you build such a database, you can then launch very precise attacks on these people,” Sood explained.
China denies accusations
Chinese officials have vehemently denied any involvement in the hack.
In a statement to The New York Times, a spokesman for the country’s foreign affairs minister said: “China firmly opposes all forms of cyberattack and cracks down on it in accordance with the law.”
“If offered evidence, the relevant Chinese departments will carry out investigations, according to the law.”
Why does this matter when it comes to U.S.-China trade?
Marriott hack revelations come as the U.S. is in the middle of a 90-day negotiation with China over a trade deal largely focused on technology and information.
Trump has made it a priority for his administration to overhaul trade relations with China.
The president has gone as far as to say he will consider intervening in the extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada on the request of the U.S., if it means a better trade deal.
Top U.S. officials, however, have taken more of a hardline approach to China in light of the Marriott hack.
While on Fox News Wednesday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said China is “conducting espionage and influence operations” in the U.S. and around the world.
WATCH: How the U.S. is responding to spat between Canada and China
In the end, Sood said he doesn’t expect the Marriott hack to affect talks between the countries.
“This is the sad part about these types of breaches, they do tend to fade away. We still haven’t seen an organization of any size or reputation suffer the ultimate price as the result of a data breach,” he noted.
He also explained that this breach is likely to be overshadowed by the Huawei situation, which has captured international attention — and therefore will have a greater impact on political dialogue.
“I do feel that the Marriott hack was a significant hack, and it’s a continuing trend,” he said. “But I think the Huawei situation is going to be more impactful.”
— With files from The Canadian Press, Associated Press