Cyber-assault HQ: how US is under attack from this office in Shanghai

Online security firm traces breaches to building occupied by Chinese military

A barrage of malicious cyber-attacks against computer networks in the United States and other countries over several years has been sourced by a private US security firm to a single building on the fringes of Shanghai, which, it says, is occupied by the Chinese military.

A 60-page report released by Mandiant, a Virginia-based firm that specialises in cyber-espionage, concludes that hundreds or perhaps thousands of English-speaking Chinese computer experts toil daily inside the anonymous-looking 12-storey building in the Pudong district of Shanghai. ‘Unit 61398’, as it is known, hacks into foreign networks on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Mandiant alleges.

“The nature of Unit 61398’s work is considered by China to be a state secret; however, we believe it engages in harmful computer network operations,” the security firm said in the report, which drew instant rebukes from the Chinese government. “It is time to acknowledge the threat that is originating in China, and we wanted to do our part to arm and prepare security professionals to combat that threat effectively.”

The company asserted that the unit, one of several in China believed to be involved in invading overseas computer systems, had “stolen hundreds of terabytes of data from at least 141 organisations across a diverse set of industries beginning as early as 2006”.  While most of the activity targeted corporations in the United States are smaller number is located in Canada and Britain, it said.

Cyber-espionage is becoming an increasingly urgent worry in Washington.  The concern is not just that China, as well any number of other countries, is successfully stealing corporate information – for example merger plans, design blueprints, pricing documents or negotiating strategies – but that it is developing the capacity to sabotage physical infrastructure networks in the US like gas pipelines or power grids.

“In the cold war, we were focused every day on the nuclear command centres around Moscow,” one senior defence official was cited as saying by the New York Times, which first revealed the contents of the Mandiant report. “Today, it’s fair to say that we worry as much about the computer servers in Shanghai.”

President Barack Obama included a call to arms to confront the cyber-threat in his State of the Union address last week.  “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets,” he said. “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air-traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing.”

Beijing continues to deny sanctioning such activity. “Hacking attacks are transnational and anonymous,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.  “Determining their origins are extremely difficult. We don’t know how the evidence in this so-called report can be tenable.” When BBC journalists approached the building they were briefly detained and forced to relinquish their footage.

Unit 61398 has been known both to private cyber-security firms as well as US intelligence for a while and is sometimes referred as the ‘Comment Crew’ because it has been known to infiltrate online forums and leave comments.  The Mandiant report does not name any victims but says that the 141 companies already infiltrated span 20 major industries.

American companies known to have been targeted by Comment Crew, however, include Coca Cola at a time when it was considering a take-over of a Chinese juice company and RSA, a technology company that creates computer codes to protect confidential corporate and government databases. Alarm bells sounded last September when a unit of Telvent which supplies equipment enabling utility companies remotely to operate valves and switches on gas and oil networks had been invaded by unidentified cyber-intruders.

Responding to the report, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden reiterated only that the United States “has substantial and growing concerns about the threats to U.S. economic and national security posed by cyber intrusions, including the theft of commercial information.” 

The Mandiant report acknowledges that while it has traced assorted cyber-intrusions to servers precisely in the rather run-down district of Pudong where the building occupied by Unit 61398 stands, it cannot be certain they are actually within its walls.  But to suppose they are not is barely plausible, the firm says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Case Handler - Probate

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Web / Graphic Designer

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to rapid customer growth, a...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree have recently been awa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest private landlord ba...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn