China accused of decade-long cyberespionage attacks

China-based hackers identified as perpetrators who broke into ISP networks serving hotels and used traveling employees to gain access to millions of confidential corporate e-mail, say U.S. officials.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

U.S. officials say China-based hackers have been identified to be the ones behind attacks that spanned a decade, targeting 760 companies, research universities, Internet service providers (ISPs) and government agencies.

According to a Bloomberg report Wednesday, the hackers used iBahn's network to break into corporate networks connected to it, using travelling employees to create a backoor to access confidential corporate data, Nick Percoc, head of security firm, Trustwave's SpiderLabs, said in the report. iBahn is an ISP specializing in the hospitality industry, offering services to 3,000 hotels in over 40 countries.

Breaking into the networks enabled the Chinese hackers to access millions of confidential e-mail messages including encrypted ones as the traveling executives reported back on everything within the company, from new product development to merger negotiations, a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the issue told Bloomberg.

The news wire said it obtained intelligence documents that indicated the hackers sought out technology and information across dozens of economic sectors and "in some of the most obscure corners of the economy". The attacks had begun in 2001 and accelerated over the last three years, according to Bloomberg, which noted that many of the victims had been hacked more than once. 

It added that companies which were attacked included Research In Motion, Google and Intel, and ranged from large corporations to niche innovators in the aerospace, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology sectors.

A report released by U.S. intelligence officials last month concluded that China had made industrial espionage an integral part of its economic policy, stealing company secrets give them an edge over U.S. and other foreign competitors to further its goal of being the world's biggest economy.

"They are stealing everything that isn't bolted down and it's getting exponentially worse," U.S. House Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in the Bloomberg report.

Based on what is known of attacks from China, Russia and other countries, a declassified estimate of blueprints value, chemical formulas and other materials stolen from U.S. corporate computers in the last year hit US$500 billion, said Rogers, who was a former agent for U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

China, however, has consistently denied responsibility for various hacking including a U.S. Commission's claim that it might have been behind a series of attacks on the country's environment-monitoring satellites. Just yesterday, reports suggested that the U.S. was preparing to confront China with findings which indicated that Chinese cyberspying groups  behind several attacks had links to the Chinese military.

Editorial standards