The recent infiltration of National Research Council of Canada computers by Chinese hackers comes as the agency is working on an advanced computer encryption system that is supposed to prevent such attacks.
The cyber assault has been met with sharp criticism of the Chinese government by Ottawa — even as Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is in China laying a path for a visit there this fall by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The federal government revealed Tuesday that the NRC's networks were the target of a cyber attack, resulting in the shutdown of its IT network for an extended period. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa denied any such attack.
Curiously, the NRC has been working with private sector and university research teams on a physics-based, state-of-the-art computer encryption system.
"The emerging field of quantum communication promises unhackable, secure communication that can be applied to protect our digital infrastructure," says the NRC's website.
"NRC is developing photonics-based, quantum-enhanced cyber security solutions ... collaborating to develop technologies that address increased demands for high-performance security for communications, data storage and data processing."
The research agency had hoped that such technology would position Canada as a global leader in field of quantum cyber security.
The Treasury Board Secretariat has not said when the NRC's computer systems were infiltrated or what the hackers might have been able to access, but said there is no evidence that other government computer systems or data have been compromised.
For now the NRC's computers have been isolated from the rest of the government's systems as a precaution, a move that the agency said "will affect ongoing business operations."
The council said it could be some time before a new, more secure system is up and running.
"NRC is continuing to work closely with its IT experts and security partners to create a new secure IT infrastructure," the council said in a statement. "This could take approximately one year however; every step is being taken to minimize disruption."
In a separate statement, the government said one of Canada's spy agencies, the Communications Security Establishment, detected and confirmed the cyber attack.
The intrusion came from "a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor," said the Treasury Board. "We have no evidence that data compromises have occurred on the broader Government of Canada network."