News / Asia

US Analysts Long Suspected China Hacking

The building housing “Unit 61398” of the People’s Liberation Army is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013.
The building housing “Unit 61398” of the People’s Liberation Army is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013.
For Internet security analysts, the announcement this week that the U.S. Department of Justice was charging members of China’s military with cyber-espionage hardly comes as a surprise.
 
Long before Washington began publicly complaining about hacking attacks coming from China, analysts have been tracking increasingly sophisticated efforts coming from somewhere in China to pry open and steal millions of secure data files from U.S. corporations, interest groups, media and even the government.

Increasingly, those analysts have been connecting the hacks with specific elements of the Chinese government; most notably the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA.
 
VOA spoke with four prominent cyber security analysts about the forensic examinations, techniques used by the Chinese hackers, and best suggestions to fight against the onslaught of Chinese hacking.

Jonathan Katz is the director of the Cybersecurity Center at the University of Maryland, Christopher Burgess is CEO and director of the cyber security firm Prevendra, Marcus Ranum is a firewall engineer and chief of security for Tenable Security, Inc., and Bruce Schneier is a leading cryptographer and author of the book “Schneier on Security”.  
 
VOA: How surprised are you that these attacks appear to be directed by or coming from the Chinese military, and how certain of that can we be?
 
Jonathan Katz: That’s a good question. According to the Mandiant report* from last year, it’s alleged that these Chinese hackers are state-sponsored actors that are breaking into U.S. corporations. As to why the military is doing it, we can speculate. But it seems clear that by targeting U.S. corporations, they’re interested in seizing intellectual property which would potentially be of use for the Chinese economy, for innovation, and potentially for other purposes to bolster China. The Mandiant report pinpointed a specific location in China where these attacks were coming from and named specific individuals by their Internet handle, but not actual names. So I’m not sure how the Department of Justice was able to make the jump to specific names, although we’ll probably learn more in the coming weeks.
 
Christopher Burgess: I’m not surprised the Chinese are purloining intellectual property from U.S. companies. They’ve been systematically stealing information since 1986. How certain can we be? I’d like to see the information coming out the indictment, and the subsequent trial, because it is difficult to trace back point-of-origin on cyber-attacks, but not impossible. The fact that the military was doing it isn’t surprising. All governments go with their ‘A-team’ when they’re going after information that is of national interest. In this case, they clearly were going after energy and natural resource information.
 
Marcus Ranum: Usually nations authorize such activities under their military because they feel that the fundamentally offensive nature doesn't fall under the purview of civilian agencies. That appears to apply whether we're talking about the US, UK, Germany, France or China. Probably a certain amount of it is also that historically, the military has more experience (in theory) handling secrets.
 
Bruce Schneier: It’s really no surprise at all. We’ve known for years there’s a lot of hacking coming from China and that much of it is either state-sponsored or state-approved. How you know about it is through investigation. It’s actually very hard to trace attacks. When we can, it’s often because hackers have made mistakes in hiding their tracks and it’s not something we can do quickly. In other cases, we’ve known with reasonable assurance the attacks came from certain buildings and offices in China and that the government knew about it and approved it.
 
VOA: What are the hallmarks or signatures, if any, of a Chinese hack attack? How are they doing it?
 
Jonathan Katz: They’re obviously very well-funded and they have a whole lot of resources. If you look at the techniques they’re using to get in, they’re using classical social engineering – malicious links in an email for example, or a spear phishing attack – in order to get a toe-hold into the system. After that, they seem to be very good at installing back doors into the compromised system that will allow them to have persistent access to the target. They’re also downloading huge amounts of data from the targets, which seems to be something unique to the Chinese. They do seem to be doing their background research, which makes the spear phishing emails look more legitimate, so getting names of people who work for the company to make it look as if they’re coming from someone inside, or crafting the emails in such a way as to convince people to click on it.
 
Christopher Burgess: The Chinese are doing what they’re doing by using what we call Advanced Persistent Threat technologies. It appears that this was on-going from 2006, so over eight years it indicates they were doing this in a very professional manner, with the intent to collect and not be detected. That’s different than organized crime where they’re trying to monetize something immediately. This was straight-up intelligence collection.

Marcus Ranum: The Chinese appear to be doing the same sorts of stuff that everyone else is/has been doing: attempting to collect economic and strategic information that will give them an edge over their competition. At the level of states, there is really not much of a line between economic activity and any other strategic area of conflict. War is a continuation of state-craft, which is a continuation of economics.
 
Bruce Schneier: There’s absolutely nothing unique about a Chinese hack, and this is one of the problems. It’s not just the Chinese; there’s nothing unique about government attacks. You used to be able to tell who it was by the weaponry. But governments, researchers, criminals; everybody’s using the same techniques. So there’s nothing unique about a Chinese attack except that it comes from China.
 
VOA: What are the best suggestions to U.S. corporations to protect themselves from these kinds of attacks?
 
Jonathan Katz: One of the things you can point to right away is the need for better user education. What you see with these phishing attacks is the need to train your workers to not be susceptible. Specifically, to be very careful when they see an email that doesn’t look legitimate, to be very careful when clicking on any links embedded in emails, or to use only their own passwords. These are the kinds of things that can go a very long way to preventing these hacks.
 
Christopher Burgess: First and foremost, you identify the location of your most sensitive data, and you isolate that away from where it can be access by anyone coming in through the Internet or social engineering. Far too many companies just don’t know where their information is, and thus they don’t know where they’re vulnerable.
 
Marcus Ranum:
They should be securing their systems and sharing information with their peers about how to maintain and improve their security. As we have seen, it really doesn't matter if it's the NSA hacking you or the Chinese – these activities maintain security weaknesses in the infrastructure that also make organizations more vulnerable to other criminals. Yes, this activity is criminal even when governments do it. It is a tremendous shame that some governments – most notably the U.S. lately – go on the offense, rather than defense.
 
Bruce Schneier: Against these sorts of attacks, the sad answer is there’s not much that can be done. Directed attacks tend to be extremely sophisticated – it’s what we call “advanced persistent threats” – and most companies are not equipped to defend themselves. The best most can do is to detect the attacks after they’ve occurred and mitigate the best they can. After that, good security hygiene is the best you can do, but if the attacker is tenacious enough, it’s not going to be enough.
 
VOA: How aware are you of any attacks or espionage going the other way, from the U.S. to China?
 
Jonathan Katz: I’m not aware of anything of this nature – U.S.-sponsored entities attacking Chinese corporations to steal intellectual property. There surely may be individuals in the U.S. or elsewhere doing that, but I haven’t seen it be state-sponsored from anywhere else other than China.  
 
Christopher Burgess: I would have no comment as I have no knowledge of such activity. That said, China has in the past made that accusation. Most recently they attributed the crash of .cn to foreign hands when it was actually domestic hackers. They have uncovered other countries hacking or trying to purloin information from Chinese government entities. There are lots of rumors. I would look to those nations that are publicly advertising that they’re creating offensive cyber-warfare capacity.
 
Marcus Ranum: What!?  Have you been asleep? Snowden's disclosure that the US has been back-dooring systems all around the world is far from new. Also, the U.S. has been compromising devices that are being exported – just as the U.S. was accusing Chinese router-maker Huawei of having back-doored routers, we now know the U.S. has been back-dooring Cisco gear. I think this is all a tremendous waste of time. If you invest your effort in defending your systems you are defending against all comers. If you simply attack a single target, you are only gaining inroads against one target. The logistics of war favor defense for its ubiquity.
 
Bruce Schneier: Oh, of course we’re doing this. The odds are zero that we’re not. We know that from the Snowden documents, we know that from U.S. policy, we know that from what the NSA does. The difference is, we don’t actually attack foreign companies and pass that information on to U.S. companies. That kind of industrial espionage is something the U.S. does not do. But when it’s government vs. government, we both do it. Everybody does.
 
*In February 2013, the Virginia-based Internet security firm Mandiant issued a comprehensive 76-page report titled “Exposing One of China’s Cyber Espionage Units.”

The report outlines over 150 instances of cyber espionage or hacking against 141 private targets that they conclude originated from the same source, which the report calls “APT1.”

The report authors detail where they attacks came from, the Internet handles of some of those behind them, and eventually conclude that “APT1” is, in fact, a Chinese military unit responsible for cyber intelligence known as 61398.

While the Department of Justice indictment goes further, and is much more detailed, much of its summary specifically tracks with the Mandiant report.

Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Video Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

With IS in Coalition Cross-Hairs, al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: eggerist from: USA
May 20, 2014 7:27 AM
Since time began appears to be the norm. Security has always been a thorn for any innovating company/ person.Stealing information by ALL countries,

by: Stephen Real from: Columbia USA
May 20, 2014 7:24 AM
China's PLA hacking unit "61398" is so famous in the USA. I wonder if the PLA offers tourist a chance to meet the rock star hackers? Since the whole world knows now who the team is by name.

by: rab from: Toronto
May 20, 2014 7:02 AM
How did VOA end up in Google as "news"? There are other articles that show China presenting evidence that US snooping is just as bad and likely worse. This article is poorly written propaganda.

In Response

by: Doug Bernard
May 20, 2014 8:38 AM
Rab, I think you'll see several of the analysts we spoke with said exactly as much. How is this propaganda?

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs