Chinese hackers have conducted a growing number of attacks against foreign companies and government institutions in recent years, leading a recent U.S. congressional report to call China the most threatening actor in cyberspace.
Although the attacks are difficult to trace to a specific source, many suspect the hackers are targeting overseas business, media, political and security institutions at the direction of, or with the permission of, the Chinese government or military.
Chinese officials have denied the charge, saying Beijing also is a victim of computer attacks and security breaches. They argue that just because cyber attacks may originate from Chinese soil does not mean China is sponsoring the attackers.
The latest accusation came Thursday from the New York Times, which said hackers employing methods known to be used by the Chinese military broke into its computers, in apparent retaliation for a scathing investigation into the wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao.
The story fits the pattern of many China-based journalists and activist groups, who have long complained of computer-based attacks and other techniques allegedly aimed at intimidating them and their sources from covering topics that upset Beijing.
Although The Times was able to employ a large computer security firm to help protect it from cyber attacks, observers say many smaller organizations with modest tech budgets are more vulnerable because they are unable to provide the same level of protection.
Chinese hackers also are believed to have spied on U.S. government and military activities, as detailed in a November report to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
The report said state-sponsored hackers often have stolen sensitive information to help advance China’s political, economic and security objectives. It also said China often chooses to look the other way when hacktivists or independent cyber criminals, conduct attacks against U.S. business or government interests.
The report said the issue is complicated by the widespread existence of state-owned or state-controlled companies in China, which often employ hackers to steal trade secrets in order to gain advantages on foreign competitors.
Because of these factors, the U.S. panel called China the most threatening actor in cyberspace.
Recent data suggests the problem is only getting worse. A quarterly report last week from Akamai Technologies found that global cyber attacks originating from China more than doubled in the third quarter of 2012, compared to the previous three months. The study suggests that one-third of all cyber attacks now come from China.
Even though a growing amount of evidence suggests Beijing’s involvement in cyber hacking, security analysts say it is difficult to trace the attacks directly to the Chinese government, in part because hackers use sophisticated methods to hide their tracks.
Thursday’s New York Times story said the hackers tried to conceal their activities by routing their attacks through overseas computers and continually switching IP addresses. It also said Beijing maintains plausible deniability for hacking attempts by outsourcing attacks to skilled hackers.
Washington officials in recent months have warned of the dire threat posed by foreign computer hackers, including those in China. This week, the Pentagon moved to address those threats, increasing the size of its cyber security force by more than 4,000 people, up from the current 900.
The move comes just weeks after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the U.S. faces the possibility of a cyber Pearl Harbor attack that could disrupt the country’s power grid, transportation system and financial networks.
U.S. officials have repeatedly raised the issue with China, which continues to deny involvement in any cyber espionage. It argues that it has worked hard to crack down on Internet crimes, saying the Chinese government itself is the world’s biggest victim of cyber attacks.