Cyber Espionage in the 21st Century
China is the world's second-largest economy, with the world's second-largest defence budget. It is estimated that the number of hackers in China ranges between 50,000 to 100,000 individuals. It is almost impossible to identify whether a cyber attack is government-sponsored because of the difficulty in tracking true identities in cyberspace. This has not stopped many western countries accusing China of cyber espionage in the 21st century, with officials and organisations having traced various attacks on corporate and infrastructure computer systems in their countries to computers in China.
China has their own specialised cyber network forces, though little is known about them. These organisations carry out both network attack and network defence. Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ‘authorized forces’ exist within the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS).
Non-governmental forces are civilian, and semi-civilian groups that spontaneously engage in both network attack and defence in China.
Accusations of espionage
Organisations, companies and governments in a number of countries have alleged incidents of cyber espionage by China. In May 2013, Australia’s ABC News claimed that China hacked plans for the headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
Officials in the Canadian government claimed that Chinese hackers compromised several departments within the federal government in early 2011 and the country’s National Research Council in 2014.
Attacks on Indian government networks, including the Indian National Security Council, have led the Indian government itself to allege the attacks have originated in China.
The United States has accused China of cyberespionage against American interests, accessing the networks of important military, commercial, research, and industrial organisations, declaring China "the single greatest risk to the security of American technologies".
China has denied accusations of cyber espionage and has deflected the accusation back to the United States.
The USA and China
The US deny engaging cyber espionage with China, but according to details released by Edward Snowden, Chinese universities, businesses and politicians have been subjected to cyber espionage by the United States National Security Agency since 2009. In May 2011, the PLA formed a cyber security squad to defend their own networks.
The Chinese have been accused of stealing massive amounts of American proprietary corporate and defence data over the past decade or more.
More than seven years ago, in January 2010, Google reported targeted attacks originating from China, affected its corporate infrastructure resulting "... in the theft of intellectual property from Google". American security experts connected the Google attack to various other political and corporate espionage efforts originating from China, including espionage against military, commercial, research, and industrial corporations. It was estimated that at least 34 companies were attacked including Symantec, Yahoo, Dow Chemical, and Adobe Systems.
According to National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden, in 2010 the NSA assessed Chinese data theft totalled 50 terabytes, being five times the holdings of the Library of Congress. Defense industrial espionage by China was said to have compromised information on the B-2 bombers, the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, space-based lasers and other high technology weapons.
Another NSA document revealed that most Chinese cyber espionage is carried out by the military, with the MSS a close second.
In May 2014 a Federal Grand Jury in the United States indicted five PLA Unit officers on charges of theft of confidential business information from US commercial firms and planting malware on their computers. Four months later, a Senate Armed Services Committee probe found hackers associated with the Chinese government had repeatedly infiltrated the computer systems of technology companies, US airlines, and contractors concerned with moving military equipment and US troops. An FBI report in October 2014 stated that hackers, believed to be backed by the Chinese government, had launched attacks on US companies.
In 2015, the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that the records of as many as 21.5 million people who had, tried or, or were working for the US government had been hacked. The Washington Post reported the attack originated in China, though did not cite their source.
Agreement to halt cyber espionage against private companies
In September 2015, US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached agreement on cyber espionage that required both sides to stop government-backed cyber espionage against private companies. Early in 2016, American intelligence officials testified that they had serious doubts about China halting cyber spying in the United States. Only the then FBI Director James B. Comey stated a belief the Chinese were abiding by the agreement.
An intelligence report in September 2016 showed that one of China’s biggest cyber spying operations had been involved in the theft of 1.65 terabytes of sensitive data from a major, though unidentified by name, US software company from October 2015, and possibly earlier. The hacker group behind the data theft was identified as part of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) China’s main police and intelligence service.
Also in 2016, the White House was criticised by senate opposition for restricting the Pentagon and US military from accurately describing the growing threat posed by China. The restrictions were sought to play down the threat posed by China, which has turned increasingly hostile toward the United States despite close trade and financial ties.
A number of private computer security firms have also stated they have growing evidence of cyber-espionage efforts originating from China, highlighting US concerns that China is using access to Microsoft source code to boost both its offensive and defensive capabilities.
Many in the west consider China to be an increasingly aggressive competitor, working on displacing the USA and her allies from their strong global positions.
Wang Baodong of the Chinese Embassy in the US stated: "China would never do anything to harm sovereignty or security of other countries. In conformity with such national policies, the Chinese government has never employed, nor will it employ so-called civilian hackers. Allegations against China... only reflect the dark mentality of certain people who always regard China as a threat."