On the outskirts of Shanghai, in a run-down neighborhood dominated by a 12-story white office tower, sits a People’s Liberation Army base for China’s growing corps of cyberwarriors.
The building off Datong Road, surrounded by restaurants, massage parlors and a wine importer, is the headquarters of P.L.A. Unit 61398. A growing body of digital forensic evidence — confirmed by American intelligence officials who say they have tapped into the activity of the army unit for years — leaves little doubt that an overwhelming percentage of the attacks on American corporations, organizations and government agencies originate in and around the white tower.
An unusually detailed 60-page study, to be released Tuesday by Mandiant, an American computer security firm, tracks for the first time individual members of the most sophisticated of the Chinese hacking groups — known to many of its victims in the United States as “Comment Crew” or “Shanghai Group” — to the doorstep of the military unit’s headquarters. The firm was not able to place the hackers inside the 12-story building, but makes a case there is no other plausible explanation for why so many attacks come out of one comparatively small area.
“Either they are coming from inside Unit 61398,” said Kevin Mandia, the founder and chief executive of Mandiant, in an interview last week, “or the people who run the most-controlled, most-monitored Internet networks in the world are clueless about thousands of people generating attacks from this one neighborhood.”
While Comment Crew has drained terabytes of data from companies like Coca-Cola, increasingly its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to the security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America. The unit was also among those that attacked the computer security firm RSA, whose computer codes protect confidential corporate and government databases.
While the unit’s existence and operations are considered a Chinese state secret, Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that the Mandiant report was “completely consistent with the type of activity the Intelligence Committee has been seeing for some time.”
A Shadowy Unit
Unit 61398 — formally, the 2nd Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff Department’s 3rd Department — exists almost nowhere in official Chinese military descriptions. Yet intelligence analysts who have studied the group say it is the central element of Chinese computer espionage. The unit was described in 2011 as the “premier entity targeting the United States and Canada, most likely focusing on political, economic, and military-related intelligence” by the Project 2049 Institute, a nongovernmental organization in Virginia that studies security and policy issues in Asia.
Mandiant believes Unit 61398 conducted sporadic attacks on American corporate and government computer networks; the earliest it found was in 2006. Two years ago the numbers spiked. Mandiant discovered some of the intrusions were long-running. On average the group would stay inside a network, stealing data and passwords, for a year; in one case it had access for four years and 10 months.
Mandiant has watched the group as it has stolen technology blueprints, manufacturing processes, clinical trial results, pricing documents, negotiation strategies and other proprietary information from more than 100 of its clients, mostly in the United States. Mandiant identified attacks on 20 industries, from military contractors to chemical plants, mining companies and satellite and telecommunications corporations.
Mandiant’s report does not name the victims, who usually insist on anonymity. A 2009 attack on Coca-Cola coincided with the beverage giant’s failed attempt to acquire the China Huiyuan Juice Group for $2.4 billion, according to people with knowledge of the results of the company’s investigation.
What most worries American investigators is that the latest set of attacks believed coming from Unit 61398 focus not just on stealing information, but obtaining the ability to manipulate American critical infrastructure: the power grids and other utilities.
Full article: Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S. (NY Times)