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China seen as honing hacker skills

Beijing denies breaching Pentagon computers, but experts say its army has invested heavily in cyber-war capabilities.

September 07, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The recent allegations that China has been hacking into sensitive government computer systems in the United States and Europe follow years of heavy investment by the People's Liberation Army in cyber-attack capabilities, U.S. defense officials and Asian security analysts said.

Although much of China's spending on information warfare remains secret, the Chinese military and its propaganda organs have regularly expressed their desire to develop computer warfare expertise and have boasted of their growing sophistication in the field, these experts said.

"There are intensive discussions in China about developing and perfecting their information warfare abilities," said Andrew Yang, a China military expert at the Taiwan-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "They have improved their tactics and approaches."

The U.S. military has alleged for nearly a year that China has launched cyber attacks on Pentagon networks. The issue returned to the spotlight this week after allegations, first reported by the Financial Times, that the PLA in June broke into an unclassified computer system used by the office of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The breach forced the Pentagon to disable the computer system for several days.

The Bush administration has not officially confirmed its belief that China was behind the attack. But when asked about it this week at a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Australia, President Bush did not rule out China's involvement, saying he may "bring this up to countries that we suspect" at the summit.

Bush on Thursday did not mention to reporters whether he had brought up the incident during his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The Chinese government has vehemently denied the allegations.

"Some people are making wild accusations against China," said Jiang Yu, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. "They are totally groundless and also reflect a Cold War mentality."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made a more direct allegation. During a visit to Beijing last month, she said reports of Chinese spying software being found on her government's computers raised a need to emphasize that China "must respect a set of game rules."

British media also have reported that the Foreign Office has fended off attacks from hackers believed to be linked to the Chinese government.

Allegations of Chinese hacking are not new. In November, U.S. Air Force officials said they were setting up a "Cyber Command" in Louisiana, in part to fend off attacks from China. At the time, Lani Kass, director of the Air Force's Cyberspace Task Force, said that attacks from China on Pentagon systems were "ongoing."

China "has tons of money and . . . the technical know-how to match the United States," she told a group of reporters.

Other Pentagon officials have testified that the PLA has reoriented its information-warfare capabilities from a defensive focus to an offensive posture by taking advantage of China's rapidly developing technology sector.

This year, the Defense Department's annual assessment of Chinese military capabilities reported that the PLA was working to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and that it had been incorporating information attacks into military exercises since 2005.

Arthur S. Ding, a Chinese military expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, cautioned that the secrecy surrounding the PLA's investments made it difficult to determine how much of China's stated cyber-warfare capabilities amount to propaganda.

Chinese military newspapers and other propaganda organs have dubbed information attacks a "new kind of people's warfare" and said multiple, redundant "cyber-warfare groups" have been set up in several Chinese provinces, Ding noted.

"It's hard to make a really good assessment," he said. "In general, they've invested a lot of resources into this, [but] we don't know the details of how many [hackers] they have in training and what kind of qualifications people have."

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