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US Department of Defense fingers China as top cyber threat

Chinese gov't, military to blame for past attacks

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A new report to Congress by the US Department of Defense (DoD) includes some of the strongest language yet implicating the People's Republic of China in recent global cyber-attacks.

"In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted for intrusions," the report states, "some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military."

The main purpose of these government-sponsored attacks was to extract information, the report claims, presumably to benefit China's defense or high-tech industries – although determining which is which can be tricky.

"Differentiating between civil and military end-use is very challenging in China due to opaque corporate structures, hidden asset ownership, and the connections of commercial personnel with the central government," the report explains.

As a result, the DoD investigators claim, China's armed forces have directly benefited from the expanding Chinese civilian economy, in which Chinese companies with access to foreign technology in areas such as aerospace, night-vision devices, microwave integrated circuits, and information technologies have transferred their knowledge to the military.

The DoD's line is in keeping with earlier reports from other government agencies and advisors. For example, in November a Congressional committee found that Chinese state-sponsored actors regularly attempted to exploit sensitive US government and private-sector systems, while in February the White House issued a report claiming that industrial espionage by Chinese actors was at an all-time high.

Private companies, too, have pointed the finger at China. Just last month, Verizon found that where cyber-attacks could be traced back to state-affiliated hackers, China was responsible in 96 per cent of cases.

Concerns over the PRC's involvement in such attacks have already led to a ban on purchases of Chinese-made IT equipment by federal government agencies, a move that Chinese networking equipment maker Huawei has slammed as "protectionism."

For its part, the Chinese government has consistently denied any involvement in cyber-attacks against the US and its allies, accusing US government officials of hanging onto a "Cold War mentality" and arguing that China "resolutely opposes internet attacks and has established relevant laws."

But according to the DoD report, China's vision for how to prevent cyber-attacks largely revolves around increased state control of internet traffic, where "governments exercise sovereign authority over the flow of information and control of content in cyberspace" – a philosophy shared by Russia, but which the US strongly opposes.

What's more, the report says, doctrinal writings of the People's Liberation Army identify "information warfare" as one of the most important aspects of modern combat, with computer network attacks being one key technique in that area.

The report further observes that while China's officially reported military budget increased to $114bn in 2013, the country's actual military-related spending in all areas is likely somewhere between $135bn and $215bn.

By comparison, the US's defense budget for fiscal year 2013 is expected to fall at around $590bn – the part we know about, at least. ®

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