China Reveals Its Cyberwar Secrets

A high-level Chinese military organization has for the first time formally acknowledged that the country’s military and its intelligence community have specialized units for waging war on computer networks.

China’s hacking exploits, particularly those aimed at stealing trade secrets from U.S. companies, have been well known for years, and a source of constant tension between Washington and Beijing. But Chinese officials have routinely dismissed allegations that they spy on American corporations or have the ability to damage critical infrastructure, such as electrical power grids and gas pipelines, via cyber attacks.

McReynolds told The Daily Beast the acknowledgement of China’s cyber operations is contained in the latest edition of an influential publication, The Science of Military Strategy, which is put out by the top research institute of the People’s Liberation Army and is closely read by Western analysts and the U.S. intelligence community. The document is produced “once in a generation,” McReynolds said, and is widely seen as one of the best windows into Chinese strategy. The Pentagon cited the previous edition (PDF), published in 1999, for its authoritative description of China’s “comprehensive view of warfare,” which includes operations in cyberspace.

“This study is a big deal when it’s released,” McReynolds said, and the current edition marks “the first time they’ve come out and said, ‘Yes, we do in fact have network attack forces, and we have teams on both the military and civilian-government sides,’” including inside China’s equivalents of the CIA and the FBI.

“It means that the Chinese have discarded their fig leaf of quasi-plausible deniability,” McReynolds said. “As recently as 2013, official PLA [People’s Liberation Army] publications have issued blanket denials such as, ‘The Chinese military has never supported any hacker attack or hacking activities.’ They can’t make that claim anymore.”

China has divided its cyber warfare forces into three types, said McReynolds, whose analysis is included in his forthcoming book, China’s Evolving Military Strategy, which will be published in October.

First, there are what the Chinese call “specialized military network warfare forces” consisting of operational military units “employed for carrying out network attack and defense,” McReynolds said.

Second, China has teams of specialists in civilian organizations that “have been authorized by the military to carry out network warfare operations.” Those civilian organizations include the Ministry of State Security, or MSS, which is essentially China’s version of CIA, and the Ministry of Public Security (its FBI).

Finally, there are “external entities” outside the government “that can be organized and mobilized for network warfare operations,” McReynolds said.

As to which of those groups is responsible for targeting American companies to steal their secrets, the short answer, says McReynolds: “They all do it.” Espionage by the PLA has been extensively documented, McReynolds said. And a Chinese hacking unit dubbed Axiom that has been linked to intrusions against Fortune 500 companies, journalists, and pro-democracy groups is reportedly an MSS actor. He noted that there are also many ways that Chinese civilians have been seen assisting in industrial espionage, including through “hack-for-cash” operations.

China isn’t the only major U.S. adversary with advanced military cyber operations. Russia is a “near peer” to the United States, former National Security Agency Director and Cyber Command chief General Keith Alexander said in 2010. The country’s use of cyber offensive operations has been documented both in Georgia in 2008 and more recently with Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Those operations, conducted in tandem with traditional combat operations, have been aimed at disrupting adversaries’ communications systems, including public websites.

Experts generally agree that Russia, China, and the United States have the most advanced and sophisticated cyber warfare forces. But Iran has been quickly gaining new capabilities and demonstrated a willingness to use them, as with a massive attack on U.S. bank websites in 2012. North Korea has also ramped up its cyber operations, most notably with the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment last year, which prompted the Obama administration to impose new economic sanctions on the hermit kingdom.

Full article: China Reveals Its Cyberwar Secrets (The Daily Beast)

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