China's universities linked to cyber-spying
China's academic computer and information schools have ties to its cyber-espionage-linked military units, a magazine reports.A burgeoning Chinese effort to build academic and civilian expertise in computer espionage has ties to the nation's military, a science journal reports Thursday.
In the past five years, China has opened 10 university computer security academies that specialize in cyber-research, says the Science magazine report by international editor Richard Stone. Chinese universities publish computer espionage research in the open scientific literature — including one 2009 report "outlining how to mount an effective attack on the U.S. power grid." Such schools have hosted hiring fairs for People's Liberation Army units, which have been linked to hundreds of hacking successes against U.S. industries and government agencies recently by outside analysts.
Stone, formerly based in Beijing, concludes, "The wellspring of China's strength is hundreds of computer and information departments across the country." Chinese academic researchers have published studies of "malware" and "Rootkit" programs that allow hackers to invade computer networks for several years. The cyber-academies "were established more to strengthen internal state security than as cyber-espionage (or) warfare training grounds," Stone says by e-mail. "Maybe the only way to determine their real purpose would be to trace where graduates are ending up, and we weren't able to do that."
The report comes as computer security analysts paint a dire picture of China's cyber-espionage efforts. An October report by the Project 2049 Institute based in Arlington, Va., said Unit 61398 of the PLA's General Staff Department, a job fair recruiter, was the "premier entity targeting the United States and Canada." A report Monday by computer security firm Mandiant suggests that since 2006, the cyber-warfare unit has repeatedly stolen documents from 115 U.S. organizations. An online recruitment notice is posted for recent grads to join the Shanghai PLA team at the center of the recent report.
The recruitment efforts at universities publishing analyses of hacking software, such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University, "lend credence to the assertion that some Chinese military units are involved and at the very least are cognizant of some of these known intrusions of U.S-based entities," says research fellow Russell Hsiao of the Project 2049 Institute.
A PLA spokesman and Xi'an Jiaotong University computer programming graduate told Science magazine that the work the army's computer teams conduct is "purely defensive." Wednesday, Geng Yansheng, a spokesman with the Ministry of National Defense denied the charges made in the Mandiant report, saying Chinese law forbade such attacks. China's Defense Ministry claimed Thursday that two of its websites faced 144,000 hacking attacks a month last year, most of them originating from the USA.
Contributing: Calum MacLeod