News / Asia

US-China Cyber Spying Case Turns Spotlight on Shadowy Unit 61398

Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, Feb. 19, 2013.
Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, Feb. 19, 2013.
A tense stand-off between the United States and China over state-backed cyber espionage has dragged China's secretive hacking unit “61398” back into focus, after the military group was pinpointed last year for mounting cyber attacks on Western commercial targets.
U.S. authorities on Monday charged five Chinese military officers at the unit, accusing them of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar firms to steal trade secrets. China on Tuesday summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing and warned it would retaliate if Washington followed through with the charges. It said the affair would damage “mutual trust.”
At the center of the argument is a nondescript tower block in the northern suburbs of China's financial capital Shanghai, home to Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 61398.
The 12-story block houses as many as several thousand staff, according to Mandiant, a U.S. cyber security firm recently acquired by global network security company FireEye Inc. Mandiant identified the location as the source of a large number of espionage operations in a 70-page report last year.
“This unit is one of the most prolific. The group is really active and very aggressive,” said Pierluigi Paganini, a cyber security expert and founder of Security Affairs, based in Italy.
Unit 61398's Shanghai base is kitted out with specialist fiber optic lines, while staff are trained in areas from English linguistics to covert communications, network security and cyber attack strategy, according to the Mandiant report.
The unit's operatives, working under code names such as “UglyGorilla”, “DOTA” and “SuperHard”, also have close research and recruitment ties with China's leading academic centers such as the prestigious Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Publicly available academic reports, school registers, recruitment notices and local online community notice boards show a web of social, educational and academic networks spreading out from the cyber spying unit. Military units in China are often organized in this way with schools, sports clubs and social events organized communally for unit members.
Tip of the iceberg

However, unit 61398 - more formally known as General Staff Department (GSD), Third Department, Second Bureau - is just one of dozens of similar groups based in China, and far from the foremost, said Mandiant analyst Jen Weedon.
“The unit is one of many and its tradecraft is not that great. They are one of the ones that doesn't seem to mind leaving traces behind,” she told Reuters.
The unit, which started operating in or before 2006, saw activity drop sharply in the wake of the 2013 Mandiant report, but has since returned to “business as usual” after it overhauled some of its hacking techniques, Weedon added.
The new allegations are that Chinese state-owned firms “hired” the unit, which used a range of cyber attack methods to illegally gather corporate information from mostly U.S. firms and help give Chinese companies a competitive edge.
The unit “stole sensitive, internal communications”, using tactics such as “spear phishing” emails to gain access to employees' computers, after which it was able to collect internal data, according to the indictment document, posted on the United States Department of Justice website.
Federal prosecutors said the suspects targeted companies including Alcoa Inc, Allegheny Technologies Inc., United States Steel Corp, Toshiba Corp unit Westinghouse Electric Co, the U.S. subsidiaries of SolarWorld AG , and a steel workers' union.
Unit 61398 - or at least one very much like it - also stole data from at least one U.S. government agency in a hacking campaign named 'Byzantine Candor', according to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.
“Hackers based in Shanghai and linked to the PRC's People's Liberation Army [PLA] Third Department” stole data from at least one U.S. government agency, according to a leaked 2008 cable.
Officials in Washington have argued for years that cyber espionage is a top national security concern, and the battle is heating up. Both sides have ramped up public and private confrontation, including at a summit last year between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China has denied the unit is involved in cyber espionage, and insists the country is more a victim than a perpetrator of cyber attacks.
Paganini said he was not surprised at the latest turn of events, which he described as just the “tip of the iceberg”.
“I believe there's an ongoing battle in the cyberspace. These countries are investing large amounts in cyber units that are able to create specific malware and have the ability to get into foreign networks and computers to steal trade secrets and intellectual properties,” he said.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syriai
November 26, 2015 5:21 AM
Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs