The US Government is to launch an unprecedented counter-attack on the individual Chinese hackers who are accused of stealing the country’s state and industrial secrets.
A series of personal attacks on Chinese hackers is to be launched, with the US naming perpetrators and bringing lawsuits and fines.
The move follows on from the announcement yesterday by the computer security company Mandiant that it had discovered a unit of the Chinese Army based in Shanghai that it claims has stolen hundreds of terrabytes of information from 140 US firms.
The American action marks a growing exasperation with Beijing, following 10 years of officials warnings from Western governments that the wholesale theft of defence secrets, and valuable business information was being carried out by Chinese hackers.
The US exasperation has been felt in the UK, where the Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned that Western powers are suffering unprecedented levels of cyber theft due to espionage. He fell shy of naming the Chinese but officials behind the scenes left journalists in no doubt that the Chinese were to blame.
News of the stiffening of attitude has come at the same time as a significant diplomatic escalation over the issue, with President Obama flagging up the cyber threat in his State of the Union address and particularly focusing in on the threat to the computerised systems that control the critical national infrastructure, systems such as electricity, gas and telecommunications, all it has been claimed the target of Chinese hackers.
The US announcement also signals one other important change, that the cyber security industry is now confident that it can identify those who are carrying out the attacks.
Up until now attribution has been a difficulty and many times over the past 10 years countries identified as being responsible for cyber crime have claimed that the attacks are simply being routed through their countries but are not actually originating from there.
According to Howard Schmidt, who was President Obama’s cyber security tsar until last Summer, the US response means that a line has been drawn in the sand.
“Since 2010 there has been report after report after report, effectively saying the same thing… but it doesn’t seem to dissuade those responsible and I am pretty sure a lot of this is coming from the Chinese Government, though some will also be coming from other groups. But it doesn’t seem to convince them that they should stop.
“The reason for that seems to be that they have so much more to gain from doing this than they have to lose.”
News of the US loss of patience has coincided with a series of signs that indicate that an international consensus on cyber crime is beginning to emerge, with Russia’s President Putin recently announcing that Russia would start moves to crack down on cyber crime.
According to sources in the intelligence and cyber worlds the release of the Mandiant report has been deliberately time to coincide with the US Government announcement of a crackdown on those attacking it.
Rumours of the US response have been circulating in the UK, well in advance of David Cameron’s announcement that the UK would be seeking to co-operate with India to build cyber centres of excellence and indicate an attempt to generate a united front against the Chinese in the light of the hacking activity claimed by Mandiant.
“It’s been going on for a while and it’s a massive response,” said one source, who declined to be named.
The Chinese have denied the Mandiant claims.
In a statement, the Chinese Defence Ministry said the report lacked “technical proof” when it used IP addresses to link hacking to a military unit, adding that many hacking attacks were carried out using hijacked IP addresses.
American exasperation was signalled by Senator Mike Rogers at the opening of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s hearing on cyber threats two years ago.
“China’s economic espionage has reached an intolerable level and I believe that the United States and our allies in Europe and Asia have an obligation to confront Beijing and demand that they put a stop to this piracy.
“Beijing is waging a massive trade war on us all, and we should band together to pressure them to stop. Combined, the United States and our allies in Europe and Asia have significant diplomatic and economic leverage over China, and we should use this to our advantage to put an end to this scourge.”