Hackers Find China is Land of Opportunity

After recent high-profile hacking campaigns against American newspapers and government organizations, and a subsequent report suggesting that groups responsible for some attacks were linked to the People’s Liberation Army, the Obama administration publicly demanded that the Chinese government crackdown on cyber espionage. U.S. accusations of state-involvement in Chinese hacking cases have long been rife, and Chinese authorities have written such accusations off as part of a smear campaign directed at Beijing, and countered by branding the U.S. the “real hacking empire”.

The New York Times reports on just how pervasive hacking is in Chinese society, and on the many free-agents who contract their hacking skills for corporate, official, and illicit projects (and often, all of the above). While joint operations between military and academic institutions are covered to describe China’s “complex universe of hacking and cybersecurity,” the Times also quotes a former hacker, who explains that western assertions of state-sponsored hacking may be misinformed:

The culture of hacking in China is not confined to top-secret military compounds where hackers carry out orders to pilfer data from foreign governments and corporations. Hacking thrives across official, corporate and criminal worlds. Whether it is used to break into private networks, track online dissent back to its source or steal trade secrets, hacking is openly discussed and even promoted at trade shows, inside university classrooms and on Internet forums.

[…]Corporations employ freelance hackers to spy on competitors. In an interview, a former hacker confirmed recent official news reports that one of China’s largest makers of construction equipment had committed cyberespionage against a rival.

[…]Another former hacker said the monolithic notion of insidious, state-sponsored hacking now discussed in the West was absurd. The presence of the state throughout the economy means hackers often end up doing work for the government at some point, even if it is through something as small-scale as a contract with a local government office.

“I don’t think the West understands,” he said. “China’s government is so big. It’s almost impossible to not have any crossover with the government.”

[…]“In China, everyone is struggling to feed themselves, so why should they consider values and those kinds of luxuries?” the former hacker said. “They work for one thing, and that’s for money.” [Source]

At his Washington Post blog, Max Fisher also reports on the legions of freelance Chinese hackers, focusing on the damage they are wreaking upon China’s economy:

A year of stunning revelations has made many Americans aware that Chinese hackers, some of them believed to be associated with the country’s military, have infiltrated just about every powerful institution in the District, from federal agencies to think tanks to, yes, media organizations. But less well-known are the freelance and industrial hackers operating within China, where they’re estimated to have caused $873 million in damage to Chinese economy in 2011 alone. [Source]

For more on cyber espionage, hacking, and China’s “patriotic geeks,” see prior CDT coverage.