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.
Doug Bernard
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.

You May Like

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms 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.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid