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Chinese Hackers May Have Pinched US Military Designs

Chinese Hackers May Have Pinched US Military Designs

Perhaps the Chinese government turned loose its hacker squad to poach sensitive U.S. military documents, giving President Obama a new set of grievances to lodge in his upcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, that simplistic explanation may be just plain wrong. "For almost anything that happens, we point at China as the culprit," noted security expert Ken Silva.

By John P. Mello Jr.
05/29/13 1:05 PM PT

Chinese hackers were accused of stealing the designs for more than two dozen U.S. military weapons systems in a report appearing Monday in The Washington Post.

The system designs pinched by the hackers were for systems critical to the country's missile defenses and its combat aircraft and war ships, the paper said.

The revelations were based on confidential sections of a report prepared by the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory group for military brass and Defense Department higher-ups.

China was not linked to the design thefts by the authors of the board's report, the Post acknowledged, but it cited senior military and industry officials with knowledge of the breaches as confirming that a majority of the break-ins were part of a widening Chinese campaign of spying on U.S. defense contractors and government agencies.

As news of the U.S. weapon systems hacks was emerging, reports surfaced from Australia accusing Chinese hackers of filching the plans for the headquarters of its top spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

Measured Approach Urged

The reports of the military design thefts have been met with skepticism in some quarters.

"It's unlikely that the deepest, darkest secrets of these weapons systems were compromised in the way these initial stories are suggesting," Ken Silva, senior vice president of cyberstrategy at ManTech International, told TechNewsWorld.

It's wise to take a cautious approach before pinning blame for the attacks on China, he advised.

"For almost anything that happens, we point at China as the culprit," Silva observed.

"It's possible that China is responsible for this, and it does seem its efforts have been ramped up blatantly lately -- but there are a lot of compromised machines on networks, and they can be used for many purposes," he pointed out.

Identifying the source of intrusions like those reported by the Post is very difficult.

"Attacks can come from so many different sources," Silva said, "and code can be reused across environments, groups and states."

Political Timing

That was true of a defense contractor intrusion case Taia Global CEO Jeffrey Carr helped investigate. Carr is the author of Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld.

"I know for sure data was stolen from the contractor," he told TechNewsWorld," but we weren't able to tell which country was involved. Nobody really can. It's all guesswork."

The timing of this latest report of Chinese cyberspying is suspect, said Carr, coming as it does so close to President Obama's meeting next week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

He maintained the confidential portions of the Defense Science Board's report may have been leaked to give the president additional ammo when discussing cybersecurity with Xi.

Blaming the Chinese government for the current wave of cyberintrusions may be a case of blame misplaced, Carr asserted.

"It's a more likely scenario that the Chinese government is not directly involved and a lot of this is being done by mercenary hacker crews that sell the data to companies in China -- to the government and other agencies -- and to other countries," he said.

Aussie Attack

While news broke of the cyberintrusions in the United States, Australia discovered that it, too, had been targeted by Chinese hackers.

The blueprints for Australia's top intelligence agency reportedly were stolen by Chinese hackers years ago from a contractor working on the US$630 million building, which is in its completion phase.

Until the reported attack this week, some analysts had suggested that Australia was an unlikely target for cyberespionage activities.

"That's ridiculous," Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst at IT-Harvest, told TechNewsWorld.

"Australia's economy is tied very closely to China's," he pointed out, "and there have been oil, gas and mining breaches since 2009."


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