Is the Chinese army hacking American computers?

Uncovering a Motive for Chinese Cyberattacks

The attack on the New York Times is believed to be a result of the paper's planned reporting on Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.
The attack on the New York Times is believed to be a result of the paper's planned reporting on Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.
© Liu Jiansheng/Xinhua Press/Corbis

When it comes to cyberattacks by Chinese hackers on U.S. companies and government entities, the reigning question is "why?"

Could hacking be a new and faceless version of war waged remotely? Is the endgame designed to plunge the U.S. into a pre-technology state? These are questions President Obama alluded to in his 2013 State of the Union address, saying, "We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air traffic control systems" [source: The White House].

Some suspect the computer attacks are actually a new version of corporate espionage designed to bolster the Chinese economy by providing access to proprietary information. It's worth noting, however, that a Chinese government-issued attack on America's financial markets, transportation systems or power grid would also affect China. China is now one of the largest investors in oil and gas in the U.S.; an attack would devalue China's U.S. investments and interrupt its flow of exports [sources: Corsi, Perlroth].

Sometimes, the information-gathering efforts of Chinese hackers take on a more political and personal angle. Take the four-month infiltration of the New York Times, for example. Just as the newspaper was set to publish a potentially embarrassing article about a wealthy Chinese leader (it would reveal how premier Wen Jiabao amassed more than $2 billion, breaking basic Communist tenets), hackers using Chinese university computers uncovered Times reporters' passwords and then used that information to access 53 of the employees' personal computers. They also snuck into the e-mail accounts of the newspaper's bureau chiefs in Shanghai and India. The computers the hackers used were the same computers previously used by the Chinese military to breach U.S. military contractors [sources: Associated Press, Perlroth].

In the midst of the controversy surrounding its cyber actions, China is deflecting blame. According to China's state news agency, the country is actually a victim in the cyber espionage game rather than an aggressor. In fact, China's state news agency reveals there are 1.29 million hacked host computers in China that are controlled by U.S. servers [source: Estes]. And China's defense ministry reports two-thirds of its military hacking attempts came from the U.S. in 2012 [source: Wee].

Wherever the blame lies, many countries are taking a hard look at how they protect government and corporate information. The U.S. and China are among those calling for the world's most technologically advanced nations to forge new rules of engagement. In addition to the obvious -- like not breaking into other countries' computers -- the guidelines would require nations to ferret out hackers operating within their borders, and set up global norms for cyberspace behavior [source: Landler].

Author's Note: Is the Chinese army hacking American computers?

Perhaps the greatest threat is not the one getting the most ink. An intense campaign of cyberassaults against U.S. computers has originated in Iran, too. Among other targets, these attacks are believed to have infiltrated American banks. And, says House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, this places critical information at risk, especially when it comes to federal, military and infrastructure operations. While Rogers and other lawmakers are calling for new cyber regulations -- including some that would require companies to share information on hacker threats or breaches -- it's like naming a baby at his first birthday. Great idea, just a little late.

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