Officials in Italy suspect that Russia was behind an ongoing hacking attack on their foreign ministry, which compromised emails for four months before it was detected. One official confirmed that the attack lasted for four months after it began last spring, before it was detected and stopped. He said the attack had not infiltrated an encryption system used for classified communication.

The current prime minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, was serving as foreign minister at the time of the attack. The official said he had not been affected, and that he had avoided using email as foreign minister. The attack targeted field offices and embassies, including staff members who often reported to Rome about their meetings with foreign officials. However, the official said that sensitive information would have been encrypted, and thus protected from the attack.

While the official could not confirm that the attack originated in Russia, but two other people with knowledge of the incident said the Russian state was believed to be behind the attacks. The matter is now the focus of an investigation by Rome’s chief prosecutor.

“There were no attacks on the encrypted level. So the information – delicate, sensitive information – that is usually shared in this net, which is restricted by code, has never been attacked or part of this attack.” according to the government official.

The official added that the online “architecture” had been modified by the foreign ministry after the attack, and introduced new internal security instruments to prevent further attacks.

The official did not comment as to how the attack was finally detected.

The attack comes in the midst of rising concerns among Nato members that Russia has used hacking and malware to disrupt infrastructure and to undermine governments, in France, Germany, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and the US. US intelligent agencies have said that Russia is responsible for leaking communications from within the Democratic National Convention, that may have been part of an effort to help elect Donald Trump to the White House in November’s election.

Officials, who spoke to the Guardian anonymously, said the Italy attack was likely an attempt to garner information regarding decision making within the government.

The news also comes ahead of an election that may be called as early as June, in which current center-left government will face a difficult re-election campaign against the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. That party has adopted a number of pro-Russian positions regarding Putin’s actions in Syria and Ukraine, and a call for sanctions against Russia to be lifted.

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